Upton Heath fire police hunt two young men

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Media captionSteve Davis of Dorset Wildlife Trust describes the blaze

Two young men are being sought by police following the largest heath fire in Dorset for 35 years.

The pair were seen walking toward the A35 footbridge leading to Heights Road in Upton on Thursday.

Residents living nearby have returned to their homes after being evacuated when the fire spread rapidly over about one sq km (247 acres) of heath.

At its height, 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze which started at about 1400 BST.

Det Insp Jim Beashel, from Dorset Police, said: "This was a major incident that had a considerable impact on the community.

"I believe that those responsible are likely to have told friends or family about their involvement and would urge anyone with information to contact us urgently."

'It was panic'

Dorset Fire and Rescue's Neil Rickett said: "This fire was extremely difficult given the access and the high winds. The heath is quite marshy so it was difficult to get vehicles onto the heath."

Four people were treated after breathing in smoke and one firefighter was taken to hospital with exhaustion.

Image caption Smoke from the fire could be seen for miles around

Another firefighter suffered minor burns to his arm, during what the fire service said was Dorset's biggest heath fire since 1976.

Resident Russell Bourton had water pumped from his swimming pool to fight the flames.

He said: "Within an hour the smoke was getting closer and closer. At one point I thought we were going to lose the house."

The flames came to within 100m (330ft) of Claire Graves' house.

She said: "We realised immediately it was around our house.

"It was panic - we didn't have time to pick anything up. We just had to get out for our own safety."

Fire crews remained on the site damping down on Friday, helped by rainfall during the morning.

Ecosystem affected

Dorset Wildlife Trust said the damage has put wildlife development in the area back about 25 years.

Steve Davis, from the trust, said it will have "massive implications".

Image caption Residents have been allowed back home following the fire

He added: "It's not just the bigger animals that have been affected... it is the whole ecosystem, the insects, for example, would have been taken out by the smoke.

"The site is internationally important, it has all six species of British reptiles which are only found in a few selected locations in the south coast."

Homes in Beacon Road and Kingcup Close were among those evacuated. Properties in nearby Long Meadow Lane were also under threat at the height of the blaze.

Smoke from the fire could be seen for miles around and at one point was blowing across parts of the A35.

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