Wildfire: The heat is on

Guest blog on behalf of Rob Marrs, Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool and President of the Heather Trust

Wildfire is a fact of life, it occurs naturally via lightning, and of course through other means (accident, arson and vandalism). Moreover, fires set deliberately to manage vegetation have been used by humans for Millennia. In the distant past, fire was used to remove trees and encourage short and nutritious vegetation for grazing animals, in Britain mainly sheep, but more recently for sporting interests. We can get a handle on the occurrence of fires if we investigate the charcoal deposits in peat, which can be aged using radiometric dating.  Peat grows slowly upwards and any material deposited on the peat will act as an historic record; in a literature search we found fire return intervals between 75 and 1800 years and for the Pennines somewhere between 115 and 250 years.

Thus, at some point we can expect fires across our moorlands. Indeed. I agree with Simon Thorp that it is not ‘if’ wildfires will occur, but ‘when’, and moreover, if we haven’t had a wildfire for a while, and there has been a particularly dry summer then it should be “Phew, we got away with it, Thank God”. If climate changes as predicted, this problem is only going to get worse and certainly not better; a climate like Portugal will be very pleasant to live in, but it would be better without their wildfires.

In my view we have to start “getting real”, accepting wildfire is a serious threat that is only likely to get worse and developing a strategy to deal with it. This has to some extent already started in that both Scottish Government and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have advertised research contracts to investigate wildfire risk. I applaud both these initiatives and wish whoever undertakes the work well. Central to this is the development of a Wildfire Danger Assessment system that can be used to predict when wildfire is likely.

It seems crazy that we don’t already have a functioning system, already in place, but better later than never. The NERC contract also includes an assessment of infrastructure that might be affected by wildfire. Off the top of my head I can think of four major facilities of national importance that are in the middle of large moorland areas and I presume those responsible for these facilities know the potential wildfire risk and have some form of emergency management plan ready to implement.

It is also gratifying to see the Fire and Rescue Services develop new techniques for managing wildfire. The red fire engines are of very limited value in fighting wildfires as we saw last year at the Saddleworth Moor fire. Fighting large wildfires with floggers should be relegated to history.

Where can an ecologist help? Well there are two approaches. The first, which I prefer, is to be very proactive and introduce a management system that reduces the moorland vegetation biomass to create large mosaics of burned patches at least somewhere on the moor. This approach will not prevent wildfire, but what it may do is (a) slow the fire down, (b) allow easier access to fight the fire and (c) produce lower burn temperatures on these patches, which might cause less damage and should allow faster recovery.

The alternative approach is to rewet the moors by blocking gulleys; in principle I support this approach for moorland restoration. With this approach the wetted-up gulleys may act as firebreaks and slow the wildfire progress, but they are unlikely to stop it completely. I remain to be convinced that the overall fuel load of the entire moor will be reduced sufficiently to stop wildfire progression. What I am convinced of is that, if a “no-burn” policy is the only management strategy used, then there will be very large fuel loads over the areas, and this may be enhanced by tree invasion and fuel-load growth (succession). This is already evident on some moorlands in the Peak District.

Thus, I see a need for a cross-country strategy within the British Isles to tackle wildfire, the Irish backstop will not work for wildfire prevention either. This should involve at least three aspects: (1) a wildfire warning system – which implies someone actually takes notes and does something with the information, (2) improved mitigation techniques and I suggest that prescribed burning (or indeed cutting) to reduce fuel loads should be included in the toolkit and (3) improved fire-fighting approaches.

Unfortunately, you do not have to have a crystal ball to know that all of this will be needed in the future, we need to plan for it.

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