Surrey wildfires highlight risks UK faces during heatwave

Firefighters in Surrey had brought a large blaze on heathland in Surrey under control by Saturday morning marking the latest wildfire in the UK in a year that was already on course to become the worst on record.

Homes were evacuated around Chobham Common in Surrey, on the south-western fringes of London, after the grass fire broke out on Friday. The flames engulfed more than 60 hectares of land — an area the size of 75 football pitches, and spread to the nearby Wentworth golf course forcing organisers to suspend a tournament.

Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister and local MP, tweeted that he was “horrified by the damage this wildfire has done to Chobham Common” and thanked the fire crews for their “bravery in tackling this terrible tragedy”.

As a heatwave sweeps across many parts of the country this weekend, fire services remained on alert for further blazes, which are becoming increasingly common, reflecting the changing weather patterns that are making the UK hotter and drier.

The latest data up to the first week of August shows a 600 per cent rise in the number of fires since the start of 2018, compared with the previous three year period, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

“All of the indications are that for 2020 we are going to see the largest area burnt by wildfires on record,” Paul Hedley, chief fire officer for Northumberland and the national lead for the UK on wildfires, told the Financial Times.

There have been more fires in England and Wales in the past five months than there were for the whole of 2019, which itself was a new record, according to Mr Hedley.

The EFFIS data showed that so far in 2020, there have been at least 91 large fires, destroying an estimated 14,000 hectares across the UK.

“We used to talk about a wildfire season, from May to September, but now we’re starting to see protracted wildfires at all times of the year,” he added. “We’ve seen what’s happened in California and Spain and we know the same is coming here.”

Once largely confined to the Scottish Highlands, nearly 100 fires have scorched parts of the country this year, from Loch Garve in Scotland to Dorset on the south coast. 

“There is definitely not a period in the satellite record where we’ve had three years in a row like this — it’s extraordinary,” said Thomas Smith, professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

Wildfires have intensified across the UK as temperatures rise;  Number of wildfires above 20 hectares

Being unprepared for these new fire dynamics could be costly, said Prof Smith. In a blaze in Swinley Forest, Surrey, in 2011, firefighters trained for tackling fires in built-up areas turned up wearing cumbersome indoor gear.

“Our tactic back then was to just throw as many people and as many fire engines as possible at a situation, and just chase the fire around a landscape,” said Mr Hedley. Since then he has sent firefighters to the US, Australia and Spain to learn how to tackle wildfires.

Earlier this year, during the sunniest and driest May on record in the UK, a specialist team trained by Mr Hedley was drafted into Wareham Forest in Dorset to spend two weeks tackling one of the biggest and most challenging fires of the year so far.

Surrounded by noxious smoke, the unit, known as the Tactical Burn Team, co-ordinated with a helicopter to help douse the blaze from above and with bulldozers and chainsaw crews to clear fire breaks through thick vegetation.

Climate change is expected to make the conditions even more conducive for wildfires in the future.

So far wildfires in the UK have done little damage to property, unlike places such as California, but carbon and smoke released by these vast fires can be highly polluting.

Fires that burnt for three weeks in Saddleworth Moor in 2018 exposed 4.5m people to poor air quality, according to a paper by researchers at Leeds university.

“We need to be thinking about public health and pollution when we’re planning for the future,” said Simon Thorp, chairman of the England and Wales Wildlife Forum.

Map showing wildfires which have damaged 14,000 hectares of land in the UK, areas (hectares), March 23 to June 1 2020

The biggest cost to date has been environmental, not least the huge CO2 emissions triggered by the fires, especially in peatland, which covers 12 per cent of the UK.

“Peat is how nature stores carbon over thousands of years, it is highly compacted carbon,” said Guillermo Rein, a professor of fire science at University College London. “When peat burns, it releases it back into the atmosphere and it can take thousands of years for that to be recaptured.”

The risk of fires on peatlands, which formed over millennia because they were waterlogged, is rising as climate change is increasingly drying them out.

The UK’s peatlands have locked up an estimated 5.1bn tonnes of carbon and a study in Forest Ecology and Management estimated that every square meter that burns releases 9.6kg of CO2, equivalent to burning 5kg of coal.

“The uplands of Scotland have been seeing a Mediterranean climate in terms of how dry they are,” said Professor Davy McCracken, director of land management at Scotland’s Rural College.

In Northumberland and Scotland, efforts are under way to “re-wet” the uplands. Huge cranes are being used to dig holes in the earth to make it more porous, and dams built to retain water upstream.

Fire and Rescue Service personnel from Greater Manchester and Huddersfield tackle a large wildfire on Saddleworth Moor in February 2019 © Anthony Devlin/Getty

Dry peatland is highly flammable, and almost always creates a “smouldering” fire rather than a “flaming” one, which can take months to extinguish as they burn deep into the ground.

Manchester fire brigade, which has had to tackle some large peat fires in recent years, has pioneered a tool for tackling these fires called a lance, which is a hollow spear that can be thrust deep into the ground to inject water below the surface.

Changes in land management have also compounded the effects of climate change.

Prof McCracken said there has been a significant reduction in livestock in some rural areas as government subsidies are no longer contingent on herd numbers. As sheep and cows disappear it has allowed flammable heather to spread across the land.

Last year, the Home Office released its first ever parliamentary note on wildfires, in which it urged more preventive measures through improved land management as it warned that climate change was likely lead to an increase in wildfires.

Mr Thorp said the warning should focus minds. “We haven’t lost a life directly to wildfires in this country, yet. But it’s only a matter of time.”


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