Today’s big question

Is Britain prepared for more wildfires?

Tuesday was the busiest day for the London Fire Brigade since the Second World War, says Sadiq Khan

A series of wildfires destroyed homes and swathes of land across the UK as the country contended with record-high temperatures. 

Scores of major incidents were announced by fire brigades across the country as blazes broke out in the 40C-plus heatwave.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was the busiest day for the London Fire Brigade since the Second World War – it received more than 2,600 calls on Tuesday, seven times the usual number. Khan told Sky News that a total of 41 properties had been destroyed in fires across the capital.

Experts have warned that the UK will need to learn how to deal with wildfires, as the number recorded this year is double that of 2021, according to data seen by The Times

As of Tuesday there had been 420 fires in England and Wales since the start of the year, according to the National Fire Chiefs Council, by far outstripping the 247 in the whole of 2021, and 200 the year before that.

Will the UK face more wildfires?

Conditions were “ripe” for wildfires as temperatures reached a new record high of 40.3C, said ITV.

Speaking to the broadcaster, Dr Thomas Smith, assistant professor in environmental geography at London School of Economics (LSE), said: “The fire risk was extreme, with record-breaking temperatures accompanied by very low relative humidity, this coming on top of a very long spell without rain. This can lead to extreme fire behaviour with fast-spreading fires burning with high intensity (large flames), making it very difficult to fight.”

And as the climate continues to warm, the extreme temperatures we saw earlier this week are likely to become more frequent, increasing the likelihood of fires, with experts warning that the UK could become more susceptible to the kinds of fires seen in Wennington, east London, where houses are close to patches of vegetation.

These types of fires are known as “Wildfire Urban Interface fires”, said Dr Rory Hadden, Rushbrook senior lecturer in fire investigation, University of Edinburgh. “Usually in the UK large wildfires are confined to relatively remote areas such as heath and moorland," Dr Hadden said.

“The recent weather has shown that as the climate changes, the UK will be susceptible to these kinds of fires which can be extremely devastating with impacts on structures, communities, wildlife and life safety,” he added.

What can we do to prevent wildfires?

Scientists and experts in the UK “are working to help plan for, and reduce the effects of wildfires using engineering and ecological techniques”, said ITV. However, speaking to the broadcaster, Dr Hadden warned that “we also need to recognise that actions of individuals will ultimately be the key to managing the risks presented by these fires”.

Indeed, we could start to look at prevention measures taken in other countries, said The Times. These include “training volunteer and part-time teams how to tackle wildfires”, or as in California, requiring that by law people must “create a buffer zone around their homes that is free of debris and vegetation to stop fires spreading”. 

Abandoned single-use barbecues and glass bottles are “among the main causes of the thousands of grass and open land fires recorded around the UK this summer”, said the Daily Mirror. Environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy has called for a disposable barbecue ban to reduce the risk of wildfires, while portable campfires and cigarette butts “can contribute to wildfires in parched areas”, the paper warned.

Longer term, “re-vegetating and restoring blanket bogs so land is naturally waterlogged will help reduce fire risk”. In addition: “Ending the practice of heather burning on peat moorlands – done to boost grouse numbers for shooting – would cut risk too.”

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