An area of heath and woodland equivalent to the size of 115 football pitches has been destroyed by a fire that ravaged Wareham Forest, with crews continuing to work at the scene, while a major emergency was declared.

The service expects it will take 'several days' to fully extinguish the fire, which broke out on Monday afternoon at Sugar Hill near Bere Road, with a huge emergency response as fire crews travelled from neighbouring counties to join the effort to get the flames under control.

A spokesman for the fire service said: "Visibility in the area remains poor today due to increased smoke and fog and residents are being urged to keep their doors and windows closed.

"We had about 50 firefighters on scene overnight but have scaled back up to approximately 75 for now, as there are still so many hot spots and the area we are dealing with is so vast. The fire is under control but we expect to be on scene for a couple of days yet for damping down.

"There was an issue with smoke last night, as the weather conditions meant the plume was lower than previously and the wind direction was taking it more towards Wareham.

"Smoke continues to rise from the scene and anyone affected by it is recommended to keep doors and windows closed as a precaution, especially if someone in the home has a pre-existing respiratory problem.

"We are urging walkers and cyclists to avoid the area, there are lots of fire appliances moving around, some five miles of hose laid out, and hot spots can flare with little or no warning. Please help us by staying away."

Initially 14 fire engines were sent to the incident, later increasing to 30 - and yesterday afternoon almost 100 firefighters remained at the scene, 'working extremely hard amid very hot conditions', the fire service said.

Meanwhile, police have launched an investigation and are appealing for anyone with information or dashcam footage to come forward.

Twelve fire engines, ten Land Rover pumps and a number of support appliances from across Dorset and Wiltshire remained at the scene yesterday, and support has been provided from fire crews in Devon, Somerset and Hampshire.

Firefighters have been using hose reel jets, main lines and beaters to bring the fire to a close, and several miles of hose have been laid to the River Piddle to boost water provision, using high volume pumps from Christchurch and Wellington.

The incident comes just a week after an amber wildfire alert about heath fires was issued by the fire service - residents were asked to help protect the countryside during the current dry spell.

Dorset Police are now appealing for anyone with information or relevant dashcam footage to come forward.

Detective Constable Richard Evans, of Weymouth CID, said: “At this time the cause of the fire remains unexplained and we are liaising with the fire service to establish the full circumstances.

“To our assist our enquiries, I am keen to hear from anyone who was in the area at the time and has any information as to how the fire started to contact us.

"I would also urge anyone who was driving in the area of Bere Road and Sugar Hill between around 8am and 1pm on Monday May 18 to check their dashcam for anything relevant.”

A police spokesman commenting this morning added: "An area of 183 hectares has been totally destroyed. This is equivalent to approximately 115 football pitches.

"Just take a moment to visualise that - a football pitch is about 110 metres long by up to 75 metres wide.

"We are so fortunate to have Upton, Canford, and Bourne Valley Heaths, that make up such a large proportion of our recreational areas and support such a diverse range of wildlife that many are fortunate to benefit freely from on their doorstep.

"We are your community team, but need your assistance to be our eyes and ears, and to keep us informed and aware of anyone who is - or may be considering - starting fires in these tinder-dry conditions.

"The consequences to life and property should such a fire of this magnitude being repeated in this area do not bear thinking about."

Anyone with information is asked to contact Dorset Police at www.dorset.police.uk, via email 101@dorset.pnn.police.uk or by calling 101, quoting occurrence number 55200070290.

Alternatively, to stay 100 per cent anonymous, contact the independent charity Crimestoppers online at Crimestoppers-uk.org or call freephone 0800 555 111.