British wildfires are getting more frequent. Here's what that means

While small-scale compared to infernos elsewhere, the rise in incidents of serious wildfires could be harder to control in future years.

Monday, April 27, 2020,
By Dominic Bliss
Saddleworth Moor, 2018. Fire fighters damp down the burning moorland above Carrbrook, during a three-week wildfire on ...

Saddleworth Moor, 2018. Fire fighters damp down the burning moorland above Carrbrook, during a three-week wildfire on the upland outside of Manchester. While British wildfires are small in comparison to most, they are increasing. 

Photograph by IAN SKELTON / Alamy

The Moray wildfire, in northern Scotland last year, raged for over a fortnight. At its peak, there were 80 firefighters, 19 fire engines and two helicopters in attendance, battling the flames on four fronts. Before it was extinguished, it had destroyed over 25 square miles of grassland and peat. 

Granted, that’s a mere singe compared to the infernos that have engulfed parts of Australia and California in recent months. Nevertheless, according to the Scottish Wildfire Forum, Moray's was “one of the largest wildfires that the UK has seen in years”. 

Uncontrolled vegetation fires on this island of ours are becoming more common. According to the European Commission, which monitors wildfire activity through its European Forest Fire Information System, there were 79 fires larger than 25 hectares in 2018, rising to 137 fires in 2019. (Compare that to the years 2011 to 2017 when there were fewer than 100 fires altogether.)

Regions all over the UK were affected, from Saddleworth Moor in Greater Manchester, Winter Hill in Lancashire, and Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire to the Vale of Rheidol in Ceredigion, and the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. Plus, the big one in Moray.

Already in 2020's warmer weather, wildfires are making headlines – with North Wales and the Peak District both reporting fires over after a mini-heatwave which saw temperatures rise to 25 C during the week of 20 April.

A NASA image of northern England shows smoke plumes carried on the air from the Saddleworth Moor fires of 2018.   

Photograph by NASA

Fireproofing the future

So what does this mean? There's no need to panic – yet. Guillermo Rein is Professor of Fire Science at Imperial College London. “The UK doesn't really have a wildfire problem, it has wildfire issues,” he tells National Geographic. “Nothing compared to the Mediterranean, California, Australia or Indonesia.” But this is a situation that could change – with the stresses of global warming fanning the flames. Milder and wetter winters will boost plant growth, while summer heatwaves will dry out potential fuel, making it more flammable. 

“Wildfires are moving north,” Rein adds. “Northern France, Germany, Netherlands and Scandinavia are all seeing them. In a matter of years the UK will be ill prepared to handle wildfires. It must consider what it might need in the future, and learn from neighbours like France, Spain and Portugal.”

April 2019, Moray: the wildfire front was battled by firefighters, estate workers and volunteers. Dry conditions and wind exacerbated the fire, which threatened a nearby wind farm.  

Photograph by Jasperimage / Alamy

Rein, who was brought up in Madrid, has felt the heat of many wildfires in his time. As part of his research he has witnessed them close-up in Scotland, California, Indonesia, Portugal and his native Spain. As a teenager, in the mid-1980s, he even helped extinguish a wildfire in the suburbs of Madrid. “It was close to my parents’ house at night,” he remembers. “There were about 200 of us and I was beating the fire with the branch of a tree. How I was allowed to be there, I don't know. It was extremely dangerous, the whole floor covered in embers. I was lucky nothing bad happened to me.”

Measuring impact

British wildfires are tame by comparison. Yes, they damage eco-systems, occasionally destroy buildings and property, and divert firefighters from their regular patches. Air pollution can be problematic, too – at the Saddleworth Moor fire, for example, nearby residents were advised to keep their windows shut. However, it seems no Briton (in modern times, at least) has ever died as a direct result of a vegetation fire. “In the UK wildfires move very slowly. They don’t kill people,” Rein adds.

Fossil records show us that wildfires have burnt throughout the last 400 million years or so of Earth’s history, ever since the Devonian Period when terrestrial plants first appeared. They are part of our planet’s natural shaping of the eco-system. Some scientists believe they are nature’s way of regulating the oxygen levels in the atmosphere.

Wildfire rages near Dunphail, Moray, Scotland in April 2019. 

Photograph by JASPERIMAGE / Alamy

Globally, they ignite for all sorts of reasons: lightning, volcanic activity, sparks from falling rocks and of course human influence. In the UK, it’s the latter that is the biggest culprit. Camp fires, barbecues, bonfires, catalytic converters on cars, sparks from farm machinery, prescribed burning that runs out of control and, desperate though it sounds, arson, are all to blame. Surprisingly, cigarettes, which are made with fire-retardant paper, are not a major factor.

Types of wildfire

Andy Elliott is a firefighter, a wildfire researcher at Exeter University, and a consultant (through his agency WildfireTaC). He explains that, in the UK, we experience four main types of wildfire: lowland heath fires (often burning across the heathland of southern England, for example), upland moor fires (such as the Saddleworth Moor fire and peatland fires of Scotland), grassland fires, and arable crop fires. Forest fires are much rarer and normally fairly easy to control since, in this country at least, the flames seldom spread between the crowns of trees. Back in 2011, however, there was a full-on forest fire in Swinley Forest in Berkshire which blazed out of control, kept firefighters busy for days, destroyed 165 hectares of forest, and sent several residents fleeing from their homes; something of an anomaly.

Dousing a rare woodland fire hit Swinley Forest, near Bracknell, Berkshire in 2011. Forest fires are uncommon in the UK due to canopy gaps.  

Photograph by Paul Vidler / Alamy

It sounds counter-intuitive but heathland burns mainly in early spring when the moisture in heather is at its lowest. Grassland, on the other hand, burns in late summer when it’s at its driest and temperatures rise. Peat can burn at any time of year, provided the water table in the soil is low enough.

Certain species are more flammable than others, thanks to low moisture content and compounds known as terpenes. In its guide to wildfires and forest management, The Forestry Commission spotlights pines, spruces, firs, cypresses and eucalyptus as high-risk species, with the latter the most combustible. It suggests interspersing these trees with more fire-resistant broadleaved species.  

Part of Elliott’s research at Exeter University involves testing the “flammability and ignitability” of different plants. He points out how beech and larch are traditionally used to stem the spread of fire in forests, and that research suggests the common elder is also very fire resistant. 

Back at Imperial College London, Guillermo Rein oversees a laboratory called Hazelab where he and his team of 15 researchers are currently studying the flammability of peat. One student from Indonesia (where there is a serious problem with tropical peat wildfires) and another from Norway (where peat can burn after permafrost thaws) peer into containers known as smouldering reactors where samples of Irish peat are slowly fuming. They experiment with water and temperature in an attempt to discover how the substance burns. 

Peatland which, according to the World Energy Council, covers two per cent of the world’s land surface (three million square km), is a vital part of the planet’s carbon sequestration. 

The effects of 'muirburn' – controlled heather burning – in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. The technique, associated with grouse moors, is controversial and can lead to out-of-control fires and distinctive growth-patterning on the ground. But there are benefits for wildfire prevention.  

Photograph by Simon Butterworth / Alamy

The researchers at Hazelab hope their work will help prevent its unnecessary destruction and cut atmospheric pollution.

Fighting fire with fire?

Combating wildfires is a whole science in itself. Elliott has travelled to California, South Africa, South Korea and all over Europe to observe these phenomena aflame. Back in the UK he advises landowners on new ways of bringing them under control. He explains how most British wildfires are fought using fire-beating tools and water hoses. Occasionally, as was the case on Saddleworth Moor, water is drawn several miles along pipes to the blaze, using high-volume pumps.

Other devices include back-mounted leaf blowers, which blow flames away from vegetation, and back-mounted sprayers, which allow firefighting teams to spread out across a wide area. Overseas, helicopters and aeroplanes are often used to dump huge amounts of water on forest fires. Elliott says the British government has no such aircraft, although private helicopters with water buckets are sometimes employed.

“In a matter of years the UK will be ill prepared to handle wildfires. It must consider what it might need in the future.”

Guillermo Rein

But as all the experts emphasise, it’s clever land management rather than emergency fire fighting which ultimately wins the day. The Forestry Commission advises landowners to thin out their forests, clear plant debris on the ground, plant fire-resilient species, and create fire breaks between groups of trees.

Prescribed, or controlled burning – where land managers clear sections of vegetation by burning them in a controlled way – is another prevention, but it’s a controversial one since occasionally it burns out of control.

Both Elliott and Rein believe prescribed burning, done efficiently, is a good move. Elliott uses the grouse gamekeepers on Scottish moors as an example. Occasionally they burn moorland heather to allow the grouse to feed on new shoots, a process which often creates useful fire breaks in the vegetation. It’s called muirburn, which the Scottish government keeps strict control over, through its Muirburn Code regulations.

Damping down fire-struck land in Dunphail, Moray, Scotland during the 2019 wildfires. Helicopters with bucket-bombs of water were employed to assist on-the-ground efforts.  

Photograph by JASPERIMAGE / Alamy

As the planet warms and British heatwaves become more common, the authorities are taking wildfires much more seriously. Nations which traditionally suffer from vast forest fires have researched the phenomenon in depth. But here in Britain, where it’s mainly heathland and peatland that is burning, rather than trees, we need very specific research.

Fortunately, our scientists are waking up to the problem. In January 2020 several British universities embarked on a four-year, £2.5million project to study how, when and where different plants and trees burn across the country. Heading up the project is Gareth Clay, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Manchester. He explains how the research will eventually lead to a UK-specific fire danger rating system.

“This information can be used tactically,” he explains. “It will give the fire and rescue services new insights into fire behaviour and so enhance wildfire control.”  Information that will, in an increasingly warm future, help save our heathland and peatland.

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