Wildfires are defined  as any vegetation fire which requires a decision, or action regarding suppression. Between 2009 and 2017 Fire and Rescue services attended almost 260,000 wildfire incidents in England, an average of about 32,000 incidents per year. [1] The role of Wildfire Tactical Advisors was developed in 2017 and established in 2018 to lead wildfire management plans. In 2020, 19 WTAs were mobilised at 13 major wildfire incidents across the UK.

The Fire and Rescue service only classify outdoor fires as wildfires if they are recorded in the National Wildfire reporting tool. To be reported the fire only has to meet one of the following criteria:

  • Involve a geographical area greater than 1 hectare
  • Has a sustained flame length greater than cc1.5 metres
  • Requires a level 2 response, more than 4 or 5 Fire and Rescue appliances
  • Resources to be committed for more than 6 hours
  • Presents a serious threat to life, environment, property and infrastructure

Impact of Climate Change on Wildfires

The Climate Change Committee’s Climate Change Risk Assessment published in 2021, highlighted some of the increased risks of wildfires posed by climate change.[2] Longer droughts and higher temperatures are more likely to create more flammable fuels for wildfires, and the potential of both a wetter and warmer climate would increase fuel growth. Land management is key to ensuring any increased vegetation growth is well maintained to prevent fires from breaking out.

Other impacts are direct results of wildfires happening because of climate change. More intense wildfires on slopes would destroy the vegetation that keeps our soils together, which leads to an increase in flash floods. Along with flooding we could expect to see an increase in landslides and mudslides. These impacts could be prevented by the creation of careful fuel and land management plans.

We heard from Andy Elliot, who is a station commander at Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue service and a National Wildfire Tactical Advisor on how to improve wildfire management in the UK. [3]

Research

International Research


Currently, the National Fire Chiefs Council(NFCC) are looking at how best to mobilise international research. Having an exchange with colleagues around the world will provide knowledge that prepares us to successfully deal with wildfires when they become a more common issue in the UK. By utilising these connections we can learn from places like California and Greece, about the methods for wildfire management.

Creating a UK Fire Danger Rating System(UKFDRS)

The wildfire danger rating system we use is based on calculations that use fuel and data models primarily from Canada. They use fuels that exist in the UK in the modelling to provide an indication of the danger, though this is not 100% accurate. Research is being conducted on behalf of the National Environment Research Council into creating a UK based rating system.

What needs to be considered in a UKFDRS?

  • Fuel Mapping on both a local and landscape-scale- We do not know what our wildfire fuels are in the UK and need to create an accurate up to date map of vegetation that can fuel wildfires.
  •  Fuel moisture- Regular measurements are taken of fuel moisture throughout the year to detect flammability.
  • Fuel Flammability-Samples taken of key UK fuels to test in a lab to check flammability of fuels throughout the year.
  • Fire Behaviour Assessment- Models based on the fuel data collected to assess the impact on the fire behaviour
  • Assessment against actual fire occurrence-Models of fuel need to be measured against real fires to understand their accuracy.
  • Scoping landscape-scale and National wildfire risk assessment

Training

In line with this research, there also needs to be more training courses on wildfire management and preparedness. In 2021, DEFRA commissioned a series of Lantra accredited vegetation fire training packages in line with the Heather and Grass Burning Regulations(England) published in 2021.[4]

These training sessions educate those working in land management about prescribed fire usage and the risks it poses for wildfires. However, they are not aimed specifically at the Fire and Rescue services, highlighting that the sector needs similar training courses. The sector needs supervisory management and fire analysis courses to be created on vegetation fires.

Similar courses in fire observation and analysis should be considered for land managers. Primarily this would cover vegetation fires, but it could also be used at wildfires if the FRS requested assistance from the land managers. Training courses are in development at the moment on this topic.

The FRS should consider working with land managers to understand the best ways to prevent wildfires while maintaining a healthy landscape.

Conclusions

More research needs to be done so that we can make informed landscaping decisions before climate change makes wildfires a regular occurrence in the UK.  It has been shown around the globe that response is not the only solution to wildfire management, instead, we need to improve preparedness.

  • International communication and knowledge exchange is key to learning how to manage wildfires
  • Fuels must be managed all-year round and not just in wildfire seasons
  • Using prescribed fire as a means of managing increased fuel growth comes with a risk that needs to be recognised
  • High quality training must be created now to equip us with the skills needed to manage wildfires
  • The training of the FRS and land managers needs to become more closely linked to understand both the needs of wildfire prevention and good land management
  • Research needs to be focussed to meet practitioner needs now instead of when wildfires become a larger issue

[1] Forestry Commission England, Wildfire Statistics for England, (2018)
[2] Climate Change Committee, Climate Change Risk Assessment (2021)
[3] Andy Elliot, Station Commander and Wildfire Tactical Advisor, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue, (2021)
[4] Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Heather and Grass Burning Regulations(England), (2021)

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Between 2009 and 2017 Fire & Rescue Services attended almost 260,000 wildfire incidents in England, an average of about 32,000 incidents per year. This number is set to increase with the impacts of climate change. We need to improve our research and resources now to ensure the UK is able to manage the risks and impacts of wildfires on our landscapes.

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