19/3/2019

Wildfire: The heat is on

Guest blog on behalf of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum by Simon Thorp, Chairman

As a result of the very public spate of wildfire incidents that occurred during 2018, the heat is on to improve the way that we plan for and respond to incidents.

The threat from wildfire has been with us since time began, but climate change predictions indicate that we should be expecting the conditions that produced last year’s incidents to occur more frequently.

The world of wildfire is not well covered by statistics, but three facts help to set the scene:

  • In the eight financial years between April 2009 and March 2017, over 250,000 wildfire incidents were dealt with by the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in England alone. 
  • In 2018, the area of land in the UK affected by wildfire was the third largest in the EU.
  • Response costs from the fire services alone for vegetation fires in Great Britain have been estimated at £55 million per year. 

It should be noted that if all the wildfire impacts on issues such as: public health, the environment, the supply of ecosystems, and impact on critical infrastructure were to be included, the true cost fires would be many times higher than the figure quoted here.

 Request for support from Government

As Chairman of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF), I wrote to the Home Office and Defra, in July last year, to highlight concerns about the wildfire incidents that were in progress at that time.  The letter outlined four actions that would improve the approach to wildfire in England and Wales.  As I had support from Scotland and Northern Ireland for the letter these actions can also be thought to apply throughout the rest of the UK.

  1. Integrated support from Government, including the development of a Wildfire Strategy;
  2. Develop an effective system to provide warning of high-risk conditions for wildfire through supporting the development of a UK-wide Fire Danger Rating System;
  3. Establish a risk assessment approach by land managers to mitigating the impact of wildfire and encourage them to work with Fire Groups and local resilience structures; and
  4. Develop and implement guidance for wildfire mitigation on open land, both managed & unmanaged.

Integrated support from Government

In England, the Home Office is the lead government department for wildfire and deals with the response from the Fire & Rescue Services (FRS); Defra, with Natural England, is responsible for the habitat, which provides the fuel for wildfire; and the Cabinet Office has responsibility for resilience planning.

This is a complicated structure and at present it appears to pull in different directions. 

The lack of coordination in government gives the feeling that the threat from wildfire is not being taken seriously.

A central focus to coordinate activity across departments, interests and regions could achieve great benefits and this could be framed by a new wildfire strategy. 

Development of a UK-wide Fire Danger Rating System

There is a requirement for an effective warning system in the UK to advise when wildfire risk will be highest.

The Scottish Government is funding some research in this area, and the Natural Environment Research Council has invited bids to carry out some further research.

The development of an effective system will require coordination and a willingness for government agencies, research organisations, the FRS and land managers to work together.  This is a further reason to establish a single focus for wildfire at government level.

 Risk Assessment Approach

The ability of the FRS to respond to wildfire incidents has developed massively over the last 10 years.

This improvement in the capability of the FRS needs to be matched by improvements in land management to mitigate the potential for damage from wildfire before the smoke starts to rise.  This is where the wildfire forums and the fire groups can help.

There are 17 fire groups in England & Wales and there are a further three in Scotland.  The groups have varying levels of activity and capability but all are multi-agency partnerships that seek to protect rural communities, the rural economy and the natural environment from the impact of wildfire.

Land managers have the skills and willingness to achieve wildfire mitigation through their management activities, often at no public cost.  There is a need to be bolder and remove barriers to allow this to happen, and also to seek benefits from operating at a landscape scale, across land ownership boundaries

The protection of designated / sensitive areas must be balanced with the need to put wildfire mitigation measures in place.  We should accept that wildfire mitigation is part of sound conservation management.

To assess what wildfire mitigation measures will be appropriate, guidance is being prepared by the Uplands management Group about an integrated suite of plans that include: a Wildfire Risk Assessment (to establish the risk), a Wildfire Management Plan (to identify the mitigation measures) and a Wildfire Fire / Response Plan to identify the actions required when a wildfire breaks out.  Ideally, all significant areas of open land will be covered by these plans.

Summary

We need to expect that wildfires will occur and plan accordingly.  It is not ‘if’ wildfires will occur, but ‘when’.  If one were needed, the spate of wildfire incidents, in February this year, has served as a reminder of the wildfire threat.

Wildfires can happen at any of time of year, in any part of the country; the threat to people and property is likely to be greatest when they occur on the rural-urban interface.

Work to mitigate the wildfire threat must start long before the smoke starts to rise.

Mitigation is likely to involve some management on sensitive / designated sites; wildfire mitigation should be seen as part of sound conservation management. 

The wildfire threat must not be ignored if we are to avoid: fatalities, serious damage to critical infrastructure, destruction of fragile habitats, damage to the supply of important ecosystem services and negative impacts on the economy.

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Comments

Wildfire

at 12:51 on 20/03/2019 by Angus Collingwood-Cameron

Well said, Simon. The Gov response following the fires of last summer, and the incidents of earlier this year, seems to be somewhat negligible. The only policy response that I am aware of is Natural England imposing further restrictions on burning on blanket bog, so ignoring scientific research and making devastating wildfire more likely. I Chair the Northumberland Fire Group. We survive due to the excellent support of the Northumberland FRS and the commitment of our public and private sector participants. Our actual funding extends to £1k pa provided by the private sector. Given the importance of our uplands and the events of last year, it seems odd that there is zero financial support from Defra. There does seem to be a noisy lobby that equates upland vegetation management to grouse moor management and hence is happy to see increased fuel loads and wildfire risk if it can be seen to "get one over" the grouse shooting fraternity. Very short sighted.

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