Britain Saw A Record Wildfire Season in 2022. It Still Hasn’t Raised Its Game

Even as Britain prepares to bake again this weekend, the country is not geared up any better for wildfires than it was last year which saw a record number of fire incidents and forced dozens to flee their homes.

Wildfires are becoming  unsettlingly more common in the UK and threatening to scorch its towns and cities — something that wasn’t the case before. As another sweltering summer begins,  academics and watchdogs told Bloomberg News that preparedness for this year’s wildfires risk continues to be underwhelming. The UK government’s Home Office still relies on a four-page document from 2021 detailing its wildfire strategy, despite the government’s own climate advisor stating preparations are insufficient. To top that, the country has fewer firefighters now than it did a decade back.

“The climate is altering our landscape much faster than we are trying to catch up,” said Guillermo Rein, a professor of fire science at Imperial College London, whose research shows that there have been at least three “fire waves” in the city linked to heat and dry weather in the past decade. “The situation is picking up faster than even fire experts had expected for the UK.”

Read More:  UK Heads for Another Sweltering Summer Driven by Global Warming

Amid record-breaking temperatures in Britain last year, July 19 turned out to be a tipping point.  A fire started spontaneously in a compost bin at Wennington in East London and spread to surrounding fields and hedges. At least 60 homes were destroyed in similar fires across the country on that day, making it London Fire Brigade’s busiest day since the Second World War. 

The causes of those fires are still not known though some clarity may emerge from a London Fire Brigade review of last year’s blazes that’s expected to come out next month.  The report will also include recommendations on how to prepare and respond to wildfires, enhance training or resource allocations, based on last summer’s learnings.

Improving Resilience

The Home Office said in an emailed response that its wildfire framework ensures it can respond to any emergencies this year. It added that it’ll implement “relevant policy recommendations” based on feedback from the National Fire Chiefs Council after 2022’s wildfires but didn’t share details of what changes are expected. A March 2023 report from the Climate Change Committee, the UK government’s official adviser, had urged them to “create and implement a cross-departmental strategy” in order to “urgently to improve our resilience to extreme weather.” 

The current framework doesn’t specify what each department will do, when, and how, the Climate Change Committee said in an email. There is a need to determine the scale of the risk in the current as well as in different warming scenarios, according to Brendan Freeman, an analyst with the Climate Change Committee said.

The policymakers must engage with scientists to understand “the fire triangle, or the interaction between weather, fuel and topography,” which are the three elements of wildfire risk, Freeman said. The information also has to be “spatially explicit,” he said, as there’s no comprehensive map right now showing areas or communities most prone to these blazes.

Read More:  First Heat Wave This Year Declared in London and Across UK

Europe is emerging as the fastest-warming continent in an already warming planet, making countries like the UK more vulnerable to extreme climate events including heat waves and wildfires. Water shortages have already begun this year, triggering the risk of droughts. Last year was a perfect storm of winds, drought and heat, which made trees and fields more likely to catch and spread fire. Research shows such incidents are likely to become more common.
While wildfires are not new to Britain — these are common on moorland and heathland — it is rare to see them destroy residential areas, underscoring how climate change is literally searing people’s doorsteps now.