Wildfires have traditionally been less common in the UK, but the threat is growing. (Image: London Fire Brigade)
Between June and July of 2018, the largest wildfire in the UK’s living memory raged over Saddleworth Moor, spreading over 2,000 acres, forcing people out of their homes and prompting the army to step in and help extinguish it.
As a country with an ordinarily cool climate, incidents like this in the UK are often written off as one-off events, and once the fire was over, many indeed soon forgot about it.
A major incident has been declared in London after a surge in fires across the capital, while most of the rest of England is covered by the highest possible wildfire warning. Experts are now cautioning that this could become the norm – and we’re currently unprepared to cope.
The warning comes as vast swathes of Europe are battling disastrous wildfires which have swept the continent following a record-breaking heatwave. In France alone, more than 16,000 people have been evacuated from their homes over the past week.
It’s perhaps because of these dramatic scenes that Britain has traditionally been complacent about wildfire risk at home. As a country with a milder and wetter climate than continental Europe, wildfires simply aren’t as common, or as dramatic, as they are elsewhere.
Yet over the past few years, that reality has been changing. With climate change driving milder winters and longer, drier springs and summers, the frequency of wildfires has been steadily increasing.
By May of 2022, the number of wildfires recorded across England and Wales (243) had already surpassed the total number observed in 2021. As temperatures climb further, experts expect that figure to increase.
With temperatures now at record levels, Professor Stefan Doerr, director of the Centre for Wildlife Research in the UK, says the country is on high alert for wildfire.
“At the moment we have the highest warning level [exceptional] for eastern parts of the UK according to the Met Office’s Fire Severity Index.
“That means that the vegetation is so dry and the temperature so high that an ignition source, whether a barbeque or cigarettes or a spark from an engine, could easily start a fire, and once it does it’ll burn very severely,” he says.
Professor Doerr adds that while there has been some encouraging progress on training UK Fire and Rescues Service personnel to deal with wildfire, this is still lagging behind the scale of the challenge we’re facing – with an area the size of Liverpool burned by wildfire in 2019, according to the Climate Change Committee.
“Our urban firefighting is fantastic, it’s world class, but fighting fire in a landscape requires a very, very different approach which you need specific training for,” he says.
Without this training, the anticipated increase in wildfire events in the coming years threatens to overwhelm the Fire Services’ capacity to cope.
“If there are many fires happening in different areas, [fire personnel] can’t be in the same place at the same time. If they’re stretched and there’s a serious accident elsewhere such as a building fire then things can become very, very problematic,” Professor Doerr says.
“Clearly, we are not prepared to deal with more fires, and we will have more fires in the future because of greater frequency of intense periods of dry and hot conditions like we’re currently experiencing,” Professor Doerr adds.
Aside from training, access to adequate resources for fighting fire is another issue that concerns Professor Doerr
“The other problem with resourcing in the UK is that helicopters can be extremely effective fighting fires. But we don’t have dedicated helicopters to do this, they have to be rented.”
“This all takes time and time is of the essence during a fire,” he says.
The Fire Brigades Union has also previously warned that cuts to fire services in the UK will seriously jeopardise fire brigades’ ability to deal with multiple threats at once, with figures showing that the number of firefighters has dropped by at least 11,000 since 2010.
A lack of preparedness or care around planning for wildfire could also have adverse impacts on the UK’s ability to fight climate change.
Wildfires on peat, for instance, could decimate some of the UK’s most important carbon storage facilities, while poor planning around tree-planting could similarly jeopardise environmental targets.
Careful planning will be required for tree-planting in particular if we want to mitigate this risk, Professor Doerr says.
“If you want to take carbon out of the atmosphere very quickly, then you plant some tree species that grow very fast. These tend to be conifer species that can be the most flammable during droughts,” he says.
“But if you plant slower-growing native broadleaf species instead, these tend to have a lower flammability, so the fire risk there is limited.”
Public education will also play a vital role in preventing future wildfires, Professor Doerr says, with some members of the public still lacking awareness about wildfire risk and how they can avoid contributing to it.
“I think there’s still huge gains to be made in terms of educating the public. We don’t see many images in the news about UK wildfires, so people often don’t see it as a risk,” he says.
Yet most crucially of all, as the current heatwave has shown, the most important way to mitigate wildfires in the UK is to tackle climate change head on.
“The most important thing to be done is anything we can do to reduce climate change – especially dramatically cutting carbon emissions,” Professor Doerr says.
“This is the key message for everybody. Because things will get worse. It’s just a matter of how bad they’ll get – that will determine the size of our problem.”
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