UK cities must prepare for wildfires


Fire Chief Dave Swallow following a moorland fire south of Birmingham last week

Last week’s wildfires in London show lessons learned from rural firefighting need to be applied urgently to built-up areas, say fire chiefs.

The record heat wave, with peaks of 40C, came during a prolonged period of dry weather – and which dried out gardens, verges and green spaces.

This helped spark the kind of fires more commonly seen in the countryside.

More than 40 homes and shops were destroyed after a number of grass fires spread to nearby buildings.

The Met Office estimates that climate change makes the extreme heat seen last week in the UK 10 times more likely. Extreme heat and dry conditions are major contributing factors to wildfires.

According to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), there have been almost 500 wildfires so far this year in England and Wales alone, up from 237 last year.

NFCC’s senior wildfire tactical adviser David Swallow, who is also a group commander for the Hereford and Worcester fire services, said: “Everything is dry and the services need to recognize the risk that they’re running now. If they don’t, then they’re naive.

“There are very urban departments that think wildfire is at the bottom of the risk list. I understand the need to prioritize resources, but there needs to be a review.”

Houses destroyed by the Dagenham fire

A fire in Dagenham has destroyed several homes and vehicles after spreading from nearby meadows

The forest firefighting group led by Mr Swallow draws its members – and its expertise – from firefighters in predominantly rural areas more susceptible to such fires, such as Northumberland, South Wales, the Peak District and Wiltshire.

Mr Swallow believes every fire service in the UK should have wildfire training. This way, forces could learn valuable tactics from firefighters more familiar with firefighting in grassland, heathland and woodland.

He said his wildfire group had been preparing for the increased risk of wildfires due to climate change for some time, but the risk was now “immediate”.

London Fire Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Smith said following last week’s fires the service was drawing up plans for how it could deal with any increase in those fires.

“It’s something the brigade and other emergency services need to be very well prepared and plan for, because unfortunately we know it’s going to happen again,” he said.

Firefighter on Lickey Hills

Scorched earth needs to be moistened – sometimes for days – to ensure it doesn’t rekindle

The South Wales Fire Service is considered a leader in its approach to wildfires.

Its station manager, Craig Hope, is another of Britain’s tactical advisers on forest fires. His force has specialized light equipment, all-terrain vehicles, a controlled burn team and a helicopter on standby.

However, 5,500 hectares of Brecon Beacons National Park have already burned in wildfires this year.

“It’s horrible, but we predicted it,” he said. “I just don’t think anyone would have predicted it would happen so soon.”

He added that years have been spent “taking small steps” and now is the time for “big steps because the climate is not on our side”.

“The fires we see now are what they were getting in Spain in the 80s and 90s.”

He is urging the authorities to invest more in developing a UK-wide “national wildfire plan”.

One solution proposed by Mr. Hope is that, rather than each force individually spending money to improve its response, there should be funding for a deployable specialist core unit.

Mr Hope added: “The solutions are there. They are complex, but we all have to work together.

“By doing nothing, we risk losing everything.”

The BBC traveled to the Malvern Hills to see the kind of expertise developed by rural fire crews working alongside landowners.

Duncan Bridges, chief executive of the Malvern Hills Trust, is working with the Hereford and Worcester Fire Services to map where local hotspots are and to understand how wind and fire are likely to move across a landscape .

CEO Malvern Hills

Malvern Hills Trust chief executive says he is stepping up plans to deal with wildfires

As part of the trust’s wildlife management, rangers also help to reduce the amount of combustible vegetation, pushing back ferns and allowing livestock to graze on grass.

According to Mr Bridges, climate change means preventing forest fires will become “increasingly critical”.

“There doesn’t seem to be a systematic approach across the country when it comes to dealing with landowners and land managers,” he says. “When it comes to fire prevention and safety, it’s more about getting everyone to do it their own way.

Defra has included wildfires in its national climate adaptation plan, and the Home Office pointed out that a plan for England it published last December outlined plans for “close coordination. .. to provide an effective response to wildfires.”

He added: “The government is committed to ensuring that fire services have the resources they need to protect us, including from wildfires, and fire authorities as a whole and relief will receive £2.5bn in 2022/23.

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