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Wildfires

Logo: England and Wales Wildlife Forum

By Rob Stacey – Wildfire Team Leader and Project Officer, Northumberland FRS 

There is a common misconception that wildfires are primarily an issue for fire and rescue services (FRSs). While the UK FRSs are an important stakeholder regarding wildfire issues, there are also many other important stakeholders working across a wide variety of sectors. Wildfires are an issue and a problem for our entire society and their impact continues to rise. This article explains some of the current wildfire trends and explains what is currently being done to tackle wildfires in England and Wales and, more broadly, across the UK.

What is a wildfire?

In view of the specific challenges presented by wildfires, the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has developed the following definition for a wildfire:

Fireperson hosing dirt between trees.
Some fires can penetrate into ground and continue burning, particularly if there has been an extended dry spell and when peat is present. These fires can be really difficult to locate and suppress as water may not easily penetrate the ground to where the fire is burning. (Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service)

Any uncontrolled vegetation which requires a decision, or action, regarding suppression which meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • Involves a geographical area of > 1 hectare​
  • Sustained flame length of > 1.5 metres
  • ≥ 4 FRS appliances/vehicles
  • Resources committed for ≥ 6 hours
  • Presents a serious threat to life, property, infrastructure and environment (natural and historic)

   
This definition is taken from the UK Fire and Rescue Service’s National Operational Guidance for Wildfires 

Wildfire risk

There are multiple drivers and variables that influence the frequency, intensity and severity of wildfires (Belcher et al. 2021), and these can change rapidly over the course of an incident. Unlike many other emergency incident types attended by FRSs, wildfire incidents are very dynamic because they are not confined, and they can move and spread across the landscape. Although they are most common in the spring and summer during periods of warmer and drier weather, they can and do occur at any time of year.

Wildfires can quickly spread and have impacts on a wide spatial area, not just through the actual fire and burned area but from the smoke that can significantly reduce air quality and affect public health (Kibble et al., 2023; Graham et al., 2020) and the potential runoff that washes burned material and pollutants into water courses and reservoirs. Wildfires in the UK can burn rapidly and for short periods of time such as a few hours, but they can also burn for much longer periods of time such as days, weeks or more than a month. Extended periods of warm, dry weather can help support the development of large wildfires. While wildfires tend to be more common in the spring and summer when we typically experience these periods of warmer and drier weather, they can and do occur at any time of year. UK Fire and Rescue Services have recorded attending wildfires in every month of the year, indicating wildfires are a year-round issue and not just a seasonal or occasional problem.

In summary, wildfires are complicated emergency incidents to prevent, prepare for and respond to. This also means wildfires are a significant issue and risk in the UK. This is further reinforced by the inclusion of wildfires as a national risk on the National Security Risk Assessment and the inclusion of wildfires as a risk on many local/regional risk registers and community risk management plans. No area of the country is immune to wildfires, and it is not the case that they only happen in rural areas – for example, we saw a number of large wildfires that affected the city of London in July 2022. In fact, the rural-urban interface (RUI), the boundary area between urban and rural areas, is a place where wildfires can be the most dangerous.

Wildfires and climate change

Wildfires are considered an emerging and evolving hazard, even though wildfires have occurred in the UK for a very long time. Current climate change projections indicate that the UK will experience an increase in the frequency and size of these types of wildfires. The Met Office has projected that a 2°C increase in global temperatures will double the days in the UK with very high fire danger and extend the wildfire season (Perry et al, 2022). We need to be prepared for these expected increases, because these changes are already evident.

Firefighters monitoring a line of fire during training on a moorland
Firefighters need to regularly train for responding to wildfires. Training is completed in a number of ways, but using prescribed/controlled fires during the burning season can provide some very realistic training. The photograph shows a group of specialist Wildfire Support Officers undertaking some training on a moorland in North Northumberland. (Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service)

During 2022, record-breaking high temperatures were recorded across the UK, and this was accompanied by a long period of extremely dry weather and a significant number of wildfires that caused significant damage and disruption. These incidents led to injuries of firefighters and members of the public, evacuations and destruction of residential dwellings and other properties. These impacts were on an unprecedented scale across the UK. Numerous UK FRSs declared major incidents over the period of 18th and 19th July 2022 because they were responding to large wildfires and/or a significant number of wildfires. The declaration of a major incident means an FRS is unable to provide business as usual and that they require support from other FRSs and organisations. Not surprisingly, the period around 18th and 19th July 2022 was extremely challenging for FRSs and other partner agencies, but the worrying thing is that while these conditions are unusual in the UK the climate projections indicate that they could soon become more common place.

Recent serious wildfire incidents in the UK have also occurred on heathland and moorland, which contains peat soils that store large amounts of carbon. When wildfires burn these areas, large quantities of carbon can be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change. Other carbon stores, such as trees that have been felled by storms, can also contribute to this risk, showing that entirely separate natural disasters can lead to an increase in wildfire risk.

Wildfires and wildfire risk can also be influenced by other natural hazards. For example, Storm Arwen in November 2021 knocked down significant numbers of trees in Northeast England and Scotland. It has taken a considerable amount of time for forest and woodland owners to remove these fallen trees due to the complications of extracting the timber and the quantity of trees. Indeed, a lot of trees still remain fallen on the ground in some areas. Dying and dead trees are much more vulnerable to wildfires because they dry out more quickly and can reach ignition temperature rapidly. Storm Arwen therefore created a significant new fuel source for wildfires. Counties like Northumberland experienced several large and significant wildfires in these areas of fallen trees in the spring and summer of 2022, leading to some significant suppression activities at locations such as Redesdale Forest. This example illustrates that wildfire risk also needs to be viewed in relation to the current experiences and future projections of other natural hazards.

Recorded wildfires in England and Wales

UK Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) have been gathering data and monitoring the wildfire situation over a period of time. For example, Fire and Rescue Services in England and Wales have been recording the numbers of wildfire incidents attended which meet the above definition since 2018, as shown in the table below.

Table showing wildfires recorded in 6 different years
Source: National Resilience - National Reporting Tool

While different datasets are compiled for Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are similar trends across all four of the UK nations. The data for England and Wales for 2020 is considered a suitable base year from which to compare trends because the data for 2018 and 2019 is only partial as the recording system was established part way through 2018 and it took a little while to embed recording processes. If we accept the limitations of the data for these two years, we can still see a gradual annual increase in recorded wildfire incidents attended by the FRSs in England and Wales over a relatively short period of time, albeit with the one significant outlier to the trend in 2022.

What are UK Fire and Rescue Services doing to address wildfires?

The UK FRS have made significant progress and continue to work hard to improve approaches to wildfire prevention, preparedness and response. In 2016/17, the National Fire Chiefs Council Wildfire Group, a group providing support and national leadership on all wildfire issues affecting UK FRS, began developing a specialist response capability for wildfire incidents. This capability is the National Wildfire Tactical Advisors (NWTA) cadre, which is a group of around 45 specially trained officers from UK FRS who can be mobilised to provide specialist safety and tactical advice at large wildfires anywhere in the UK. The cadre was deployed for the first time in 2018 to the large wildfires at Saddleworth Moor (Greater Manchester) and Winter Hill (Lancashire) and has since been deployed to numerous wildfires around the country. The UK FRS continues to support the maintenance and development of the cadre. Recently, the NWTA was identified as an example of best practice and has been used as inspiration for the formation of a similar national capability in the Netherlands. Members of the UK NWTA cadre directly helped to support and train colleagues who formed the new national capability in the Netherlands.

Smouldering forest after a fire
Wildfires can spread into the ground and become deep-seated. This happened at the Fourlaws Forest wildfire in 2022, where the image shows the fire burned through the roots of trees and shrubs. This can lead to instability of trees and shrubs, which can pose further hazards to firefighters and members of the public. The Fourlaws Forest wildfire was particularly challenging because the fire was burning on the edge of forest which was next to an area of moorland which had two wind farms. If the fire had continued to spread, it might have spread onto the moor and caused damage to the wind turbines. Firefighters often have to look at the big picture when responding to wildfires - this means not just considering what is happening now, but also predicting what might happen in an hours' time or several hours' time. (Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service)

UK FRSs have also been developing and enhancing wildfire training at other levels. During the last 12 months, officers from Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service and the National Operational Learning (NOL) team at the National Fire Chiefs Council have been developing a foundation level training course for operational firefighters to help ensure good quality wildfire training is freely available to all UK FRS. This training will be released soon as a modular e-learning package and will help ensure all operational personnel have received basic level wildfire training to help keep them and others safe and to help improve effectiveness and efficiency. This foundation training sits within an evolving suite and framework of wildfire training which is being developed by UK FRS to provide structure and progression to specialist wildfire training.

Partnership working on wildfire issues

While the UK FRS has made significant progress on many aspects of wildfire prevention, preparedness and response, the FRS cannot tackle the issues associated with wildfires on its own, and neither can any other single agency or sector. Close partnership working is crucial to addressing wildfire issues at different scales – local, regional and national.

Partnership working at the local and regional level

  • Partnership working on wildfire issues is well established at local and regional level within some areas of the country through local multiagency Wildfire Groups and Fire Operations Groups. These groups involve a range of partners that work together to undertake a range of important activities, including but not limited to: Analysis of wildfire incident data and trends
  • Identification of wildfire hotspots and the development of initiatives to try to reduce wildfire occurrence
  • Communicating changes in wildfire risk to stakeholders and members of the public
  • Organising multiagency wildfire exercises to practise and test joint response to wildfires
  • Developing wildfire response plans (also called wildfire fire plans) for higher risk sites to ensure plans are in place for the land owner/manager and the fire and rescue service prior to a wildfire occurring
  • Improving wildfire risk communication to the public

   
Wildfire Groups such as the Northumberland Wildfire Group, Cumbria Wildfire Group and the Durham Wildfire Group operate at county level, while the Fire Operations Groups (or FOGs) in areas such as the Peak District and the South Pennines operate cross-county borders at a more regional level. Both types of groups are having positive impacts upon wildfire issues within their localities and both types of groups are a key vehicle for implementing local projects and initiatives to help reduce the number and impact of wildfires.

The national wildfire groups/forums (discussed in the next section) are currently helping to support and nurture closer partnership working and continue to promote the importance and significant benefits of multiagency wildfire groups. There is scope and benefit of expanding the number of multiagency wildfire groups in existence and groups such as the England and Wales Forum are keen to help support the establishment of new groups by promoting the values of the groups, providing advice on how to setup and run a wildfire group and providing connections to individuals who currently manage the existing the wildfire groups.

Partnership working at the national level

A wide range of individuals and organisations are working at the national level to discuss and address wildfire issues. Multiagency groups have been in place for some time at nation level to help share good practice and develop strategic approaches to wildfires. The England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF), the Scottish Wildfire Forum (SWF) and the Northern Ireland Wildfire Stakeholders Forum work within their respective devolved administrations to bring together government departments, academic researchers, third sector and charity organisations and representatives of local wildfire groups. Recently, all of the national forums have been working collaboratively to develop key framework documents. For example: members of the EWWF have been working with the Home Office to review the Wildfire Framework for England; members of the EWWF have also been working with Welsh Government and other partners to develop the Wales Wildfire Charter; members of the Northern Ireland Wildfire Stakeholders Forum have been developing a draft Wildfire Strategy for Northern Ireland which was put to public consultation in 2023; and, finally, members of the SWF have supported the development of a national wildfire strategy for Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and are working with Scottish Government on a broader strategic approach to wildfires in Scotland.

Vast fire and smoke spreading across a moorland
The image shows a wildfire on a heather and grass moorland in West Northumberland which burned more than 139 hectares (approximately 139 rugby pitches). The wildfire spread towards Kielder Forest and a neighbouring farm, but was suppressed using resources from Fire and Rescue, Mountain Rescue and three local farmers. (Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service)

The work on wildfires at national level continues at a pace with partners working to ensure that wildfires and wildfire risk become a key consideration in everything that we do within government, organisations and society as a whole. It is important to note that the national forums also work very closely together and do not work in isolation. The three forums meet on a regular basis along with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Wildfire leads. This ensures regular communication and sharing of updates between key parties working at the strategic level. This helps to ensure all of the forums and national groups stay informed and up-to-date with what is happening across the UK. It also provides excellent opportunities for collaboration on projects and initiatives of mutual benefit and interest, while affording the individual forums the ability to tailor wildfire activities to the specific contexts of their nations (i.e. the different legislation and land management policies and funding schemes that exist within the devolved administrations).

UK Wildfires Conferences

The national wildfire forums, National Fire Chiefs Council Wildfire Group and the local/regional wildfire groups all provide support for the UK Wildfire Conferences, which take place every two years. These events have been running since 2003 and have progressively grown in size and impact. The conferences migrate around the four nations of the UK, with each nation taking a turn to host eery fourth event. The conferences are now a significant event on the international wildfire community calendar, attracting wildfire experts and stakeholders from around the World. Importantly, the events allow UK stakeholders keep informed of new innovations in theory, policy and practice. The UK is now playing an active role exchanging knowledge and experience within the international wildfire community. In the early days this exchange was typically in a one-way direction, with UK stakeholders receiving knowledge and experience from colleagues in the established wildfire hotspots of the world, such as the Mediterranean region, USA, South Africa and Australia. However, it is now very evident that there is a more two-way direction of dialogue with UK stakeholders both receiving and sharing good practice.

The next UK Wildfires Conference will take place on 12th and 13th November 2024 in Aberdeen in Scotland. This event is a must for anyone interested in learning more about wildfires and for anyone with a stake in wildfire prevention, management/mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Delegate and exhibitor places are still available and further information can be found online.

Conclusions

We know that wildfires in the UK will become more frequent and will increase in severity due to climate change. This means the time to act is now. We also know from the experience of many other countries that we cannot solely focus on improving wildfire response. When weather conditions are supportive, we can and will experience wildfires in the UK which are difficult to control. We need to undertake activities to help reduce, manage and mitigate our wildfire risk, and that work is and should be rooted in partnership working on the full range of wildfire issues, from deciding how we manage the land and fuel (the vegetation), how we design and manage our buildings and communities, and how we plan, prepare and respond to wildfires that occur.

The national wildfire groups and forums, local and regional wildfire groups and the UK FRSs have key roles to play in helping communities manage and deal with the growing impacts of wildfires – not only as emergency responders, but also through provision of advice and guidance on wildfire prevention, mitigation and preparedness. If you have an interest and a stake in wildfire issues and are not currently part of a local or regional wildfire group, then please contact us and we can put you in contact with others working in this field. Alternatively, if there are no local/regional wildfire groups operating in your area then maybe you could help to setup a new group. If this is the case, we can provide you with advice and support.

For further information about the EWWF and local wildfire groups please contact Rob on Robert.Stacey@northumberland.gov.uk


REFERENCES

Belcher, C., Brown, I., Clay, G.D., Doerr, S.H., Elliott, A., Gazzard, R., Kettridge, N., Morison, J., Perry, M., Santin, C. and Smith, T.E.L. (2021) UK wildfires and their climate challenges. Expert Led Report Prepared for the third Climate Change Risk Assessment

England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF) website

Graham, A.M., Pope, R.J., Pringle, K.P., Arnold, S., Chipperfield, M.P., Conibear, L.A., Butt, E.W., Kiely, L., Knote, C. and McQuaid, J.B. (2020) ‘Impact on air quality and health due to the Saddleworth Moor fire in northern England’ in Environmental Research Letters, 15 (07401)

Kibble, A. Callow, P., Harold, P., Singh, M., Cheek, E. and Harrison, H. (2023) Chapter 10: Wildfires and Health in UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) “Health Effects of Climate Change (HECC) in the UK: 2023 report”

Perry MC, Vanvyve E, Betts RA, Palin EJ (2022). 'Past and future trends in fire weather for the UK'. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences: volume 22, pages 559 to 575 14.

Logo: National Fire and Rescue Service
Logo: Northumberland Wildfire Group

Scottish Wildfire Forum website 

UK Fire and Rescue Service’s National Operational Guidance for Wildfires 

UK Wildfires Conference 2024 

Wales Wildfire Charter (2023

Wildfire Framework for England (2021)

More from England & Wales Wildfire Forum


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Posted On: 02/05/2024

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