It rarely makes the headlines, but across the country this spring firefighters have been battling wildfires on heaths, moors, and forests in what is shaping up to be the worst wildfire season in years.
This week a helicopter had to be called out to “water bomb” a three mile long moorland fire on the Kyle of Lochalsh in northwest Scotland.
And last weekend, a discarded cigarette sparked a wildfire that destroyed 17 acres of a wildlife-rich nature reserve in Dorset.
Fires have also blazed nature reserves in Surrey, Northumberland, and the Black Mountains in recent days.
This year at least 221 serious wildfires have already been recorded in England and Wales, according to Paul Hedley, wildfire lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council and chief fire officer for Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service.
That is close to the 237 wildfires recorded across the whole of 2021, and 50 per cent more than the 146 recorded in all of 2020. We are only four months into the year, and only two months into the traditional ‘wildfire season’.
“It will certainly be the most challenging year we have had in the last four or five years,” Mr Hedley told i. “The fire risk and spread within the UK is definitely increasing, both in frequency and severity.”
The UK’s wildfires are tame by international standards. Mercifully, Britain’s firefighters do not have to deal with the type of vast blazes that devastate parts of California, Australia, or Southern Europe each year.
But British wildfires can still be highly dangerous, warns Guillermo Rein, professor of fire sciences at Imperial College London. “The fact that we are not used to them already means they are very dangerous,” he tells i. “The UK is not expecting wildfires. It is not prepared for them. No matter if the fires are small or slow, it is already a massive surprise to many people. And that creates a safety hazard immediately.”
As global temperatures rise, the UK is expected to experience longer, hotter, drier summers – ripe conditions for fiercer wildfires. Research by climate scientists at University of Reading found that the kind of dangerously hot and dry conditions that allow huge wildfires to start will become far more common in the UK by the end of the century. In the driest regions, such as the south-east of England, this could put habitats at risk for up to four months per year on average.
Professor Rein said: “Absolutely every expert, and every prediction, is saying that in a matter of five, to 10, to 15 years, the bigger fires are arriving in the UK.”
He argued that British firefighters are not prepared to tackle this level of threat. He said: “The fire brigade knows that while right now they are doing okay, they know they can’t deal with a fire season that feels more like the south of Spain. We need to prepare for the future now because by the time it has arrived, it will be too late.”
Is rewilding a fire risk?
Rewilding is the big buzzword in nature conservation. It covers a whole spectrum of activity – from letting farmland go fallow to re-introducing bison back into woodlands. But the main thrust is to take action that restores vegetation and wildlife to barren landscapes.
That can bring conservationists into conflict with firefighters and farmers. Firefighters want to minimise excess vegetation on moors and in forests, seeing it as extra ‘fuel’ for a wildfire. Conservationists, on the other hand, see those tree saplings and thorny scrub as vital wildlife habitats and carbon stores.
“We don’t really have wild lands in the UK, we have areas which are now being left to rewild, but these are going to be very difficult for firefighters to fight fire on,” says firefighter Craig Hope. Regular controlled burnings are necessary to keep vegetation levels under control, he argues. Meanwhile, sheep farmers say sheep grazing on upland hills help keep vegetation to a minimum, reducing the fire risk.
But most conservationists insist rewilding in a fire-safe way is possible. Restoring peatlands, for example, involves re-wetting peatland soils, reducing their fire risk. For lowland heath and heather moorlands, tactics might involve strategically re-wetting areas of land near roads and footpaths to minimise the risk of human-caused fires, or using traditional grazing animals to clear excess plants.
In the UK, most fires are started by humans, either by accident or design. Discarded rubbish, bonfires, campfires, sparks from farm machinery – all can start a wildfire under the right conditions. Disposable BBQs are a particular hazard and after several ‘serious incidents’ during lockdown, the government is considering an outright ban.
Once in full swing, it takes specialist training and equipment to bring a wildfire under control. Flames can race across landscapes at high speeds, burning for days on end.
“A house fire is almost predictable,” firefighter Jamie Kelly, an operational crew manager based in Basingstoke, told i. “You know, generally, what things will burn, what things will take longer to burn, where the fire will go, where the smoke will settle, where the smoke will travel to.
“[With] a wildfire, you’re dealing with so many different variables.”
There are logistical challenges as well. A standard fire engine only holds enough water for 10 minutes of use, “which is nothing, even when you are dealing with a fire the size of a football pitch”, said Mr Kelly.
During the fires on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester in 2018, often described as the largest English wildfire in living memory, firefighters had to use miles of hosing to pump water up into the hills. Meanwhile, traditional fire engines struggle with the off-road terrain firefighters must traverse to tackle remote wildfires, and firefighters need specialist uniforms that are cooler and more lightweight than those needed for fighting a traditional house fire.
In some parts of the country, fire services have invested heavily in coping with wildfires. Craig Hope is a firefighter in the training department of the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. He began worrying about the threat from wildfires more than a decade ago.
“I realised about 15 or 16 years ago that things were not getting easier, that these fires were getting harder to fight. And we didn’t have the right equipment, we didn’t have the right training,” he told i. It prompted him to launch a local wildfire project which he says has “revolutionised” how South Wales deals with wildfires.
Now the service will cut or burn firebreaks into the landscape to stop a fire in its tracks, specialist all-terrain firefighting trucks are available to quickly get up into the hills, and a helicopter is on standby during the summer months to drop huge loads of water from above.
Mr Hope says this investment must be replicated across the country. “You see a lot of firefighters wearing structural PPE fighting wildfires,” he said. “You see a lot of firefighters without their jackets on because they are too hot. But we shouldn’t be fighting fires in t-shirts in 2022.”
The Fire Brigade Union agrees. Since 2010, government spending cuts have led to the equivalent of 8,000 full-time firefighter roles disappearing, according to general secretary Matt Wrack. More investment is needed to ready the service for the impacts of climate change, he told i.
“There’s clearly an equipment resource issue, and then there’s a people resource issue,” he said. “It is very labour-intensive to fight a big wildfire.”
The National Fire Chiefs Council stressed the fire service is investing heavily in training and equipment for wildfires. For example, since 2018 about 50 ‘wildfire tactical advisors’ have been trained to be deployed to advise local brigades on how to fight serious wildfires. It insists the service can cope with the current threat level, but admits it is “on a journey” to preparing for escalating climate impacts.
As the dry weather looks to continue into the Bank Holiday, fire crews across the country are on high alert for fresh blazes. But as the climate warms, the worst may be yet to come.