Environment

Wildfires: Firefighters on front line of climate crisis say they don't have resources to cope

The Fire Brigades Union says crews are having to do more with less and has called for more resources and a better pay offer as the climate crisis causes increasing wildfires.

Firefighters are facing pay stagnation, lack of resources, and increasingly difficult conditions. Photo: Unsplash

A lack of resources to tackle the increasing number of wildfires caused by the climate crisis is leaving crews with an “impossible task”, the Fire Brigades Union has warned.

As the UK endures its second heatwave in the space of just a few weeks, the union said firefighters desperately needed additional resources to deal with the impact.

Riccardo la Torre, national officer at the Fire Brigades Union, said crews were being asked to do more with less resources and not being paid a fair wage.

“We are seeing people leave the industry,” he told the Big Issue.

The UK is currently in the middle of an amber heat alert, while the Met Office has said there is an “exceptional” wildfire risk over the weekend – with fires already breaking out across the south of England.

Meanwhile, a drought is expected to be declared on Friday covering most of the country.

In the first week of August, the London Fire Brigade tackled 340 grass and land fires, more than eight times the number tackled in the same period last year.

The Home Office says it is committed to ensuring fire crews have the resources they need to tackle wildfires and has increased funding from £1.2billion to almost £1.4bn.

Last month, homes were destroyed and firefighters injured when a wildfire took over Wennington in north-east London on the hottest day ever recorded in the UK.

La Torre said the incident won’t be a one off.

“We’ve been warning for some time now — the firefighters union, firefighters on the ground, the scientific community — that these conditions, they were coming, they were getting more regular, more intense, more severe,” he said.

La Torre said as wildfires are listed in the national risk register, firefighters should have the appropriate resources to deal with them, but staff cuts make that impossible.

He described how, during the fires on the hottest day ever recorded, which the London Fire Brigade described as its busiest day since World War Two, crews on the ground calling for additional support were told there was nothing coming.

Fire engines across the country sat empty in stations, he said, as there were not enough staff to crew them.

“The efforts of firefighters on the front line or control operators in control rooms has been phenomenal yet they were given an impossible task,” he said. “We’ve been placed on the frontline of the climate crisis without the proper resources or the staff members to be able to deal with it adequately.

“We can’t get to these fires as quickly as we used to. We’ve had 11,500 firefighters cut since 2010,” he added.

Labour has accused the Tories of failing to plan for the wildfires, saying that they have “put the smoke alarm on snooze”.

Labour’s shadow paymaster general Fleur Anderson said the Tories’ failure to plan was a “dereliction of duty that is putting lives at risk”.

“This is an urgent wake-up call. The reality of the past decade has been devastating cuts to firefighter numbers and fire appliances, leading inevitably to slower response times,” she said.

“We need a government that will take serious action on climate change to adapt our infrastructure and prepare a joined-up emergency response to keep people safe against the threats of a warming world.”

Firefighters are feeling “exhausted, worried, and angry” as they confront a reality that is only likely to worsen in coming years.

Years of pay stagnation is compounding the issue, La Torre said.

According to the union, firefighters’ pay has been cut by almost £4,000 between 2009 and 2021.

In June, firefighters were offered a 2 per cent pay increase, which amount to a real terms pay cut in the face of inflation, which is currently at 9.4 per cent.

“We talk about [firefighters] being on the front line of the climate crisis but they’re also on the front line of a cost of living crisis as their pay thanks,” La Torre said. “ It’s a real tough time.”

Last month, the union said that it would be considering industrial action in response to the offer.

In a statement at the time, the union’s general secretary Matt Wrack said firefighters would “inevitably begin to discuss reactions, including industrial action”.

“The Fire Brigades Union and our members do not consider or take industrial action lightly or without ensuring that all efforts to resolve the issue have been exhausted. To that end, we will be writing to the national fire employers to inform them of the anger and frustration their proposal will create,” Wrack said.

La Torre said that discussions around potential strike action are still ongoing.

The union on Thursday called again for more resources for fire services across the country.

“Understaffing has been so bad that throughout the last period of wildfires nearly all fire and rescue services in the most severely affected areas had to call up off-duty firefighters and ask them to perform extra shifts,” said Andy Dark, the union’s general secretary.

“If we are to properly protect life and property from wildfires the fire service urgently needs huge investment.”

La Torre warned things could become so difficult that the public would have to expect that firefighters would be unable to attend every single incident.

Already, he and the union are looking towards the next potential crisis beyond the wildfires.

“The professionals on the ground know that the wildfire season is getting longer, it’s getting more intense, that it’s only going to end for the flooding season to start — another extreme weather event as a result of climate crisis that we are completely underprepared and under resourced and understaffed to respond to,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Fire can have a devastating impact on families, businesses and communities.

“That’s why core spending power for standalone fire and rescue authorities has been increased from £1.232billion in 2016/17 to £1.373billion in 2022/23, demonstrating our commitment to ensuring fire services have the resources they need to keep people safe, including from wildfires.”

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