UK battles threats of staggering annual bushfire escalation

Fires in dry parts of UK are on the increase because of climate change and the shifting landscape

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Fires were still burning when English professional golfer Alice Hewson collected her winner’s cheque last week following a truncated women’s tournament held on the prestigious but parched Wentworth course in southern England.

The fire started on a neighbouring course before spreading swiftly to Wentworth and across Chobham Common, a 574-hectare heathland and wildlife haven home to more spider species than anywhere else in Britain.

A week later, firefighters were still there after successfully containing the fire and damping down the hotspots.

The fire in a wealthy slice of London's suburban sprawl was not unusual. Across the country there were more than 100 fires of significant size in the year to July 1 but the long, hot summer is set to see the UK having its worst year for wildfires on record.

The parched conditions and wind meant that the fire spread more quickly than previous incidents nearby. It jumped a railway line and a road before spreading to the Common where firebreaks – strips of mown land with little vegetation - finally limited its footprint to 60 hectares, said officials.

“Eight-and-a-half metres of concrete road would normally stop a fire,” said James Adler, the director of biodiversity at Surrey Wildlife Trust, which manages the land. “It didn’t.”

Historically a damp, northern corner of Europe, Britain is more used to headlines about flooding and coastal erosion plunging houses into the sea.

But scientists and experts have warned hotter, drier conditions in the coming decades will force policymakers to confront wildfires as a growing threat to humans, wildlife and the environment.

Quadrupling of UK wildfires in 2020

So far this year the UK has seen nearly four times the number of significant bushfires - 98 - compared with the average over the previous decade, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System.


The UK’s own climate change assessment warns that the likelihood of bushfires may increase between 10 and 50 per cent by the 2080s.

But compared with southern European nations such as Portugal, where more than 100 people died in bushfires in 2017, fires in the UK have rarely caused damage to property or people and remains low on the political agenda.

The main threat has been to the environment with fires on the peatlands that cover one tenth of Britian and are a key store of carbon built up over thousands of years.

The UK has up to 15 per cent of Europe’s peatland area, which locks up an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon according to a 2011 commission of inquiry report into the state of the habitat.

The loss of only five per cent of the UK’s peatlands would be the equivalent of the country’s entire annual emissions caused by human activity. The UK government, which is due to host global climate talks next year, has committed to hitting net zero carbon targets by 2050.

Wildfire data dearth

Despite the concerns, severe wildfire was not recognised as a national risk until 2013. The national policy on tackling bushfires was based on the way firefighters tackled burning buildings, according to a 2016 paper by some of the UK’s leading wildfire experts.

“In the UK, the main problem we have is that the information is very limited,” said Dr Cristina Santin, a wildfire researcher and associate professor at Swansea University. It was not clear if there were more fires but “some of the fires are getting bigger and they are getting more difficult to manage.”

Firefighters have been scrambling to learn new techniques from more experienced colleagues in Spain, Portugal and the United States.

A firefighter puts water to flames at a brush fire along Bouquet Canyon road in Saugus, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. A brush fire in Saugus is threatening structures and prompting evacuations Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service said. (David Crane/The Orange County Register/SCNG via AP)
US firefighters are far more experienced at tackling wildfires than their UK counterparts

A bushfire workshop organised by the UK’s agriculture ministry last year identified a series of failures in previous cases including a fire at a military firing range caused by bullets striking the parched ground.

The review found the defence ministry failed to alert firefighters sufficiently quickly after the fire started in 2018, while aircraft could not be used to "water bomb" the land because of the threat of unexploded munitions going off.

In another case, a shortage of equipment meant that a helicopter was being used to fight fires in two different parts of the country at the same time.

Dave Swallow, tactical adviser on wildfires for Britain’s fire service chiefs, said that the UK was learning quickly but did not have planes and other specialist kit to dedicate to tackling wildfires.

The cost of a wildfire

The firefighters’ adage is that there are three main causes of bushfires: men, women and children. An average year in Britain sees 32,000 "ignitions" – mainly caused by discarded cigarettes, barbecues, arson and carelessness – though most fail to grow into something bigger in the generally damp conditions.

The concern is that as Britain gets hotter, more of these ignitions will turn into bigger fires.

With each major bushfire costing around £1m (Dh4.8m) to tackle, the key is prevention and putting in measures to stop them in the first place, said Mr Swallow. “There’s a need to change land management practices to prevent a build-up of too much vegetation,” he said.

Rob Gazzard, one of the country’s leading bushfire experts, said subtle changes would be needed to prepare for the growing threat of wildfires, including careful selection of trees for planting and managing the environment.

Why wildfires are increasing

Experts say the growing threat from bushfires is a combination of climate change and the altering landscape.

“There has been a decrease in grazing because farming is, in many cases, not profitable anymore,” said Dr Santin. “Those areas go from grassland to heath and that increases the risk of fire.

“People have for hundreds and hundreds of years been using fire as a land management tool and they have transformed the landscape. Now because we have less grazing, we have a problem.”

Scientists have identified a heather, Calluna, as a particularly flammable species. They have proposed “re-wetting” the landscape to make the valuable peatlands damper and potentially reduce the dominance of the heathers.

“That carbon may have been there for centuries or even thousands of years,” said Dr Santin. “So we know that peatland fires are the most important in terms of carbon emissions because that carbon is not coming back.”

Mr Adler said that the fire at Chobham Common - close to the large smoke-affected homes of celebrities such as Queen guitarist Brian May who tweeted his shock - had highlighted the challenge for the government to hit its environmental targets while easing its planning laws to promote new development.

His organisation is mulling options to make the common more resilient including introducing deer to eat vegetation and create mini natural firebreaks with their paths and tracks. Early results in nearby heathland suggest it is an effective tactic.

He also wants to re-wet some areas and create new ponds to help fire crews in the event of further fires, but that requires significant investment from central government.

“If they want to leave the environment in a better state than they found it, there has to be more than words and not just build, build, build,” he said.