Rock legend Brian May is at the forefront of calls for a public meeting with the Ministry of Defence and fire service in the wake of the latest devastating fires on Hankley Common.
Around 100 people attended an initial meeting in Elstead on Thursday, August 4, to formulate a co-ordinated community response, in the expectation of further wildfires.
Mr May, who moved to the area last winter, rejected suggestions that a smaller group of community leaders approach the authorities, saying: “People want an open discussion with the fire service, we have to hear their point of view direct.
“They are the ones who can tell us about protecting our homes, measures like firebreaks and saturating the land.”
His wife, actress Anita Dobson, asked for a show of hands, drawing unanimous support. Cllr Else is already compiling questions for the MoD, who lease Hankley for army training. She undertook to convene a further public meeting.
A recurring theme at the public meeting to discuss a local response to the Hankley Common fires was the absence of an official alert system, over-reliance on often misleading social media, and the role of Waverley council, whose emergency plan is not triggered until a “major incident” is formally declared.
Anita Dobson suggested measures as basic as ringing the church bells. “We are not on Facebook, so if you don’t look at your computer every five minutes how else do you become alerted?”, she said.
James Mendelssohn, chairman of Thursley Parish Council, was among many misled by social media.
He said: “We were away and got a WhatsApp saying we are being evacuated, which was totally wrong. I try to hide my irritation when I see post after post asking ‘have you seen the smoke?’ People must take responsibility and dial 999, instead of expecting someone else to do it.”
The impact of funding cuts was clear right across public services. Some drivers were unwittingly sent towards danger after the Thursley road was closed by police officers drafted in from outside the area. The fire service was over-stretched, having to deal with four serious fires the same day as Hankley’s third fire in two weeks.
Similarly, Waverley leader Cllr Paul Follows said Waverley no longer had the “capacity” to enforce bylaws – if they even existed – against selling disposable barbecues or lighting campfires. Locals in fact do not blame barbecues – the cause has not yet been officially announced.
The rector of Elstead, Hannah Moore, said emergency planning must also consider visitors, after cub scouts from London were forced to shelter in the church for several hours.
The meeting also heard about plans adopted in Thursley following its wildfires in 2020. Equestrians have a “buddy” system for horse evacuation, a workable model for the human equivalent.
Friends of Thursley Common now patrol the commons in recognisable blue livery to educate users in a non-confrontational way.
The Herald approached the MoD for a comment on Friday, August 5, but was yet to receive a response at the time of going to press last Wednesday (August 10).