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Photos by Various Page last updated: 2021-09-12

Bilsdale Fire

On 10 August 2021 a fire broke out in one of the transmitter buildings close to the base of the mast. The onsite engineer called the fire brigade at 1319 stating that he could see smoke coming from below the first stay level, around 50–60 metres from the ground. A local hill walker also noticed a huge black cloud of smoke coming from one of the buildings at the base of the mast, with smoke coming out of the top "a bit like a chimney".

Initial Northern Echo report, including several striking pictures of smoke emanating from the mast

Eight pumps from North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service attended and "worked to control the fire in difficult circumstances and extinguished a fire in a single-storey stone building and transmitter mast." Only one of the four buildings at the mast was affected.

All services from the mast are currently off air until further notice. There are concerns that the mast is structurally unsound and a 300m exclusion area has been put in place. Survey work is currently being undertaken by drones to attempt to ascertain structural stability.

Initial BBC report on the fire

Phase 1 Recovery

It looks like all services, including digital TV, DAB, BBC national, BBC local and commercial FM radio will be off air for some considerable period. Bilsdale is an important site, providing over 1 million people with TV services in an area stretching from Hartlepool in the north to York and Harrogate in the south, most of North Yorkshire, including Stockton, Middlesborough and Whitby.

Eston Nab

In order to restore services to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, emergency work at the Eston Nab relay was immediately undertaken. On 11 August the three TV PSB transmitters were retuned from their normal allocations of 23/26/48 to the Bilsdale allocations of 27/24/21, the transmit log periodic antennas were changed from vertical to horizontal polarisation, the receive (RBL) antenna was swung around to point at Pontop Pike, and the transmitter powers were doubled from 10W to 20W. This action restored PSB services to viewers in Hartlepool, Redcar and the eastern edges of Middlesbrough, although all viewers who were using Eston Nab prior to this change then needed to retune their equipment. Subsequently on 12 August a temporary mast and additional transmitters were installed, allowing the PSB services to be transmitted at higher power over a larger area on the Bilsdale channel allocations. The existing Eston Nab transmitters were then tuned back to their original allocations and repurposed to broadcast the three COM services. It was not possible to use the Bilsdale allocations for the COM services as they are adjacent channel to the incoming feed from Pontop Pike. Transmissions from the temporary mast were increased in power on 19 August extending coverage to over 250,000 households. Radio services for Radio Tees (95.0 MHz) and TFM Radio (96.6 MHz) were installed on 11 & 12 August, and the other commercial radio services were then added on 13 August: Heart FM (North East) on 100.7 MHz, Capital FM (North East) on 106.4 MHz, and Classic FM on 101.6 MHz, thus restoring all local radio services to the majority of their previous audience. Although Eston Nab was originally primarily a low power television relay, the FM radio installation covers a wide area, including Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesborough, Guisborough, Darlington and Scotch Corner. On 17 August DAB services for Digital 1 and SDL were also added.

Arncliffe Wood

A temporary 15m mast was erected at the BT Microwave site at Arncliffe Wood on 20 August, with transmissions commencing later that same day. This measure should restore reception to the areas around Darlington, Barnard Castle, Richmond, Leyburn, Catterick, Masham and Ripon. PSB services are on channels 40, 43 & 46, so viewers will need to retune their equipment.

Sutton Bank

A site at Sutton Bank commenced transmissions on 8 September extending coverage to Northern parts of York, Harrogate, Pickering, Ripon, Masham and Leyburn. PSB services are on channels 27, 24 & 21.

Whitby, Guisborough, Limber Hill, Peterlee and Skinningrove

As of 13 August, TV services at Bilsdale's biggest dependent relays Whitby, Guisborough and Limber Hill have been restored, either by changing the RBL from Bilsdale to Pontop Pike, or in the case of Whitby for PSB 1 & 3 by changing the feed to D-Sat 27.5W. The same is also likely at Guisborough. BBC Tees on 95.8 MHz from Whitby, which was also dependent on Bilsdale, has also been restored. Services from Peterlee were restored on 18 August, again by changing the incoming feed to Pontop Pike. Skinningrove was put back on the air on 20 August, initially only the PSB2 multiplex.

Other Bilsdale relays

The remaining Bilsdale relays have gradually been restored by changing their RBL feeds to Pontop Pike or satellite. This was completed on 3rd September when the Rosedale Abbey relay returned to air.

Phase 2 Recovery

The next stage of recovery is to install a temporary mast at the Bilsdale site which will restore services to the vast majority of viewers. The current plan is to erect a temporary 80m mast at a suitable location near to the existing mast. This is no simple endeavour, given that the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest which is valued for a mix of habitats of rare fauna and flora. Ground needs to be prepared, power cables run, temporary transmitter units and feeders installed. It was hoped that the temporary mast would be in service by 27 August, however delays in the legal/planning process has meant this date has now been pushed back. It should be borne in mind however that the replacement mast will be 240m shorter than the existing mast, so a reduction in coverage area will be inevitable. The extent of this reduction is not yet known.

Phase 3 Recovery

The final phase is the restoration of a service "equivalent" to that prior to the incident. It is not clear what this means at present, however if the mast is structurally compromised it could involve complete replacement.

Latest Arqiva statement

Image credit: DB Aerial & Satellite, Hartlepool

The remaining pictures were taken by Martin Brown on the 20th, 10 days after the fire.

Starting at the bottom

The first stay level

This is the area southwest of the main site, where I understand the temporary mast is to be sited. Just a solitary digger on the site on the afternoon of Friday 20th.

Bilsdale index

Arqiva Bilsdale update 8-Sep-2021 (YouTube video)
Arqiva Bilsdale update 17-Sep-2021 (YouTube video)

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