A WILDFIRE that forced residents to flee their homes as it swept across tinder-dry swathes of the Highlands has been doused by water bombs dropped from a helicopter.
Firefighters battled the blaze on the ground and from the air yesterday after it took hold across a stretch of gorse and woodland in the Aigas area, near Beauly.
About a dozen homeowners were advised to leave their properties late on Thursday night when the fire veered dangerously close.
At one point, firefighters from Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue believed they had the blaze under control, only for it to reignite a short distance away. Later, the deployment of water bombs extinguished the last of the flames.
The blaze affected land owned by the Aigas Field Centre – a wildlife reserve created by naturalist and writer Sir John Lister Kaye. Yesterday, Sir John was out with firefighters trying to prevent further destruction.
He said: “It has been a long night. We had a nasty scene with houses having to be evacuated because they were surrounded by flames.
“Thankfully, the fire crews saved them all and there has been no loss of life or injuries.
“However, we have lost hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat, and it will take a long time to recover. But the centre wasn’t affected and the wind changing direction really helped by taking the flames away from us.”
Val Hoffman, her daughter, Ashley, and partner Ian Hawkins were evacuated, amid fears that their 100-year-old farmhouse would be destroyed.
Ms Hoffman said: “We were just going to bed when we realised there was a fire on the hillside behind us. “We could see it getting ever closer to us and of course, we couldn’t go to bed.
“It was getting closer and closer, and because there was a lot of dead and dry bracken and vegetation behind us, it was the perfect fuel.
“In the early hours of the morning, Ian was getting really worried and went to tell the firemen down the glen that our home was being threatened.
“It was quite frightening, but the firemen were brilliant. Three fire appliances quickly came and the crews surrounded the house for four hours, water-spraying the ground to protect the house and making sure we were safe. That scene was being repeated elsewhere in the glen.
“We can’t thank the fire brigade enough. We could have lost everything.”
Yesterday, Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue said crews fought through the night on Thursday and were still damping down the area when the blaze reignited.
A second wildfire started earlier in the day near Dornoch. Smoke affected traffic on the A9, and diversions were put in place.
Graham Robertson, group manager of Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, said up to 40 firefighters from eight stations had been involved in tackling the blaze.
He said: “It has been very challenging incident due to the steep terrain and the fact that this fire was burning through the night. “The crews worked very hard and very professionally.”
David Leishman, a group manager with the fire and rescue service, said firefighters had worked with the police to evacuate four properties which were felt to be in danger.
“We managed to protect the properties and keep the fire front away from them,” he said.