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Addressing the UK’s Wildfire Risk: a Collaborative Approach

The UK is not commonly recognised around the World for experiencing significant wildfires. However, in recent years wildfire has become an important issue locally, regionally and nationally within the UK. This article explains why wildfire is a significant risk and presents examples of some of the partnership work and training that aims to improve prevention, preparedness and response to wildfires.

Recognition of the risk
While wildfire events in the UK are relatively small in size compared to those experienced in other parts of the World – for instance in the USA, Australia and Canada – they can be very intense, spread over large areas of the landscape and can cause significant costs to the economy and environment.

Historically the UK has been vulnerable to periodic severe wildfire seasons. When these events occur, they can stretch the capacity and resilience of the fire and rescue service. During the last decade, the UK government and the fire and rescue services have begun focusing their efforts on developing safer, more effective and more efficient approaches to managing wildfire risk. The spate of severe wildfire incidents that occurred across many areas of the UK during the Springs of 2011 and 2013 further raised awareness of the potential impact of wildfires which led to the inclusion of wildfire within the UK National Risk Register for the first time in 2013.

Key factors influencing wildfire risk in the UK
The level of wildfire risk is not ubiquitous across the UK, varying considerably across and between different regions. The key factors influencing wildfire risk include the presence of different weather conditions, topographies and fuel types.

While wildfire risk and occurrence in the UK clearly varies according to location, there is also a significant temporal variation caused by the weather and climatic conditions. To provide some specific statistics using a recent data source, there were an average of 374 outdoor vegetation fires per day during April 2011 compared to 127 per day in September 2011 (Department for Local Government, Fire Statistics: Great Britain 2011 to 2012). Further analysis of fire statistic data indicates that there tend to be two periods of the year when wildfire risk is at its highest and when wildfire incidents are most numerous. The first period usually occurs during the Spring after the winter thaw and before vegetation has begun to grow again. The second period usually occurs during the summer months when temperatures are higher and rainfall is lower. The pronounced temporal variation in wildfire incidents provides its own challenges to the Fire and Rescue Service and is quite unique when compared to the relatively more even distribution of other types of fires and emergency incidents across the year.

Similarly, the varying topography of the UK also has a key influence on wildfire. The upland and more mountainous areas of the UK, which are predominantly found in the North and West, provide topographical conditions that are particularly supportive to wildfire spread. Larger wildfires usually occur in upland areas where slopes are steeper and vegetation is more continuous and unbroken, which provides ideal conditions for wildfire spread. A further complication is that many of the fires in the upland areas occur within particularly remote areas where there is a significant delay in any initial attack by the fire and rescue service.

The topography of the South and East of the UK, by comparison, is characterised by more gentle undulating slopes. In direct contrast to the upland areas, the different types of vegetation found in the lowlands are arranged in much smaller contained areas and are less continuous. This relatively discontinuous arrangement of fuel over more gentle slopes creates more “natural” fuel breaks which help to restrict wildfire spread and which provide more opportunities for containment. However, wildfires still occur within the lowlands and their impact can be particularly pronounced because there is a greater likelihood that they will encroach on the rural-urban interface and on key communication links and infrastructure.

Incident Command at Wildfire Training Exercise - Harwood Forest, Oct 2013 - IFF Magazine

The influence of land ownership on wildfire risk
Although the term “wildfire” is used in the UK to refer to vegetation fires, the term is perhaps misleading because there are few truly wild or wildland areas within the UK. The few areas of wilderness that do exist are mostly found in the more remote mountainous areas of Scotland and Wales. Lightning strikes cause a significant number of wildfires in the United States of America and Australia, but they are very rarely an ignition source in the UK. The fact is that most wildfires in the UK are caused accidentally by human activities associated with land ownership and land use; although some areas, like the South Wales Valleys, do experience a disproportionate number of deliberate ignitions.

Government agencies, like the Forestry Commission, Ministry of Defence and the fifteen National Park Authorities, directly own and/or manage large areas of public land, but the majority of land is still privately owned and managed for various purposes connected to commercial farming, forestry, industry and leisure. In some areas of the UK, both public and private land managers use fire as a land management tool to create areas of pasture for sheep grazing. Fire is also used to create different habitats which are necessary for the rearing of game birds for the hunting industry, which is a key element of some upland rural economies. When performed in accordance with the burning codes (for example, the Heather and Grass Burning Code 2007 in England and Wales and the Muirburn Code in Scotland), these prescribed burning activities can be effective for reducing fuel levels and the risk of wildfire. However, inappropriate prescribed burning practices can actually cause wildfires or increase the risk of future wildfires.

A strong collaborative response to wildfire in the UK
The severe wildfire events that have recently occurred have prompted the UK government, fire and rescue services and a number of stakeholders to work together to more effectively address the wildfire threat within the UK. There is now a widespread belief that the UK fire and rescue services must engage and work closely with other stakeholders in order to find more effective and innovative methods for managing local and national wildfire risk. In response to this realisation, UK fire and rescue services have been working collaboratively with land management partners for a number of years to improve prevention, preparedness and response to wildfires. This work was initially led by a small number of fire and rescue services which had historically suffered from extreme wildfire events.

The collaborative work with rural agencies has been further consolidated and enhanced through the formation of wildfire groups operating at various geographical scales. Two very influential national forums were created during the last decade, with the Scottish Wildfire Forum (SWF) being created in 2004 and the England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF), originally called the England Wildfire Forum, being formed in 2007. Both groups were formed to bring together strategic managers and wildfire specialists from numerous professional sectors to work together to address wildfire issues of national importance.

At a more local level, fire groups have been established to provide a collaborative multi-stakeholder approach to local wildfire issues and to take shared actions and responsibilities to address wildfire risk. These groups are locally controlled and their focus and activities vary according to local circumstances, funding and the stakeholders involved. The creation and success of these groups has been partly dependent upon the presence of champions that have been willing and able to bring together multiple stakeholders and coordinate on-going work programmes. A number of the existing fire groups are well organised and have been very effective at improving partnership working on a number of important wildfire issues. This co-working has encouraged and provided opportunities to solve problems and respond to local issues, often leading to cost savings. Some of the key results have been the development of:

  • detailed fire plans providing site specific risk information
  • common training systems
  • common Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and safe systems of work
  • collaborative fuel reduction initiatives, such as collaborative burning by fire and rescue services and land managers
  • shared resources
  • knowledge and information exchange between partners

The success of the early fire groups has since prompted the formation of a number of fire groups across the country.

Wildfire - Harbottle, Northumberland 2007 (2) - IFF Magazine

The adoption of international best practise
In addition to improved partnership working at the local and national level, international collaboration has also made some key contributions to improving the UK’s response to wildfire issues. There are several fire and rescue services that have been particularly proactive in actively seeking, forming and maintaining strong international partnerships. These partnerships have provided opportunities for UK fire and rescue services to visit and work with leading wildfire agencies around the World, including those in the USA, South Africa, France and Spain. Personnel involved in these exchanges have shared new ideas, concepts and best practices currently used by wildfire agencies overseas. These experiences have enabled some fire and rescue services to develop their knowledge, understanding, and expertise which has enabled them to develop and adopt new initiatives that have resulted in further improved wildfire policies, procedures and protocols.

With an improved knowledge and understanding of wildfire among some UK fire and rescue services, it has become necessary to look at how this knowledge and understanding can be shared and standardised among all services in the UK. It was for this reason that the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) Wildfire Group was formed in 2011. The specific purpose of this group is to take a coordinating and leading role in driving new initiatives aimed at raising awareness of wildfire issues, reducing wildfire risk and improving fire and rescue response to wildfires. The group assisted in the development of the first national Wildfire Operational Guidance Manual, which was recently published in October 2013 by the Scottish Government.

Some of the other key achievements of the CFOA Wildfire Group to date have been:

  • Assisting with the development of Wildfire National Occupational Standards for the FRS.
  • Providing assistance and support to the UK MET Office for the development and implementation of a new Fire Risk Rating System.
  • Successful lobbying of the UK national government regarding the inclusion of wildfire within the UK National Risk Register in 2013.
  • Development of a Service Level Agreement with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in the USA and the International Association of Fire Chiefs on the use of Firewise materials in the UK to help reduce wildfire risk within urban-interface environments.

CFOA Wildfire Group is currently working with international partners in the development of wildfire training for UK fire fighters and fire officers. To provide a specific example, members of the group are currently working with the Catalonian Graf Bombers in Spain to develop a pilot tactical burning course for UK fire and rescue personnel.

The UK now has the knowledge, skills and expertise required to address its wildfire risk. Many fire and rescue services and their partners are now better prepared for wildfire than they ever have been. However, the need for continued development and improvement is widely acknowledged. The key catalyst for improving awareness and management of wildfire risk in the UK has been partnership working at the local, national and international level. International collaboration has already played a very important part in enabling the UK to significantly improve its approach to managing wildfire risk. Continued collaboration with the international wildfire community is essential if the UK is to continue to improve its approach to wildfire prevention, preparedness and response. Furthermore, it is imperative that the UK continues to form new links and maintain existing partnerships to ensure that it is prepared and able to respond to future wildfire challenges. To this end, the UK is keen and in a position to actively contribute to the further advancement of knowledge and understanding of wildfire by the international wildfire community.

Paul Hedley

Paul Hedley is Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service and Chair of the CFOA Wildfire Group

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