Responding to wildfire risk in Northumberland (UK):
Training and Partnership Working
Although the UK is not commonly recognised around the World for experiencing significant wildfire events, historically the UK is in fact vulnerable to severe wildfire seasons – as was discussed by Paul Hedley in the last issue.
For example, during the Spring of 2011 the UK suffered a particularly serious wildfire season. For the period from 18th April to 6th May 2011, Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in England attended 7,100 outdoor fires, several hundred of which were classified as major incidents. Similar demands were placed upon the FRS in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
While awareness of wildfire as an important issue has perhaps only recently been identified at a national level in the UK, there is a longer history of awareness of wildfire issues at the more local level. For example, wildfire has been considered a significant risk in the County of Northumberland in North East England for a number of years. It is for this reason that since 2004 Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) has been working with a range of partners to develop and improve its approach to a whole range of wildfire issues, from prevention to preparedness and response.
The purpose of this article is to summarise some of the key work that is currently being delivered in Northumberland to provide a case study of how wildfire issues are being addressed in one area of the UK.
Wildfire training for Fire and Rescue Services and partner agencies
During 2004, and following the experience of a number of wildfire incidents within Northumberland, NFRS initiated a project to critically appraise its entire approach to wildfires and the training provided to fire fighters and fire officers. The key findings of this initial work were that wildfire incidents presented unique challenges and risks to the safety of NFRS’s fire fighters and that the Service could implement a number measures to improve the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of its wildfire preparedness and response work. The Service actively engaged with a number of other partner agencies and began the process of reviewing and revising its policies and procedures. This work was then followed by the development and delivery of wildfire-specific training to fire fighters and fire officers.
For more than 6 years, NFRS has been successfully developing and delivering high quality wildfire training to its fire fighters and fire officers. NFRS has also successfully delivered wildfire training to local land managers and partner agency staff, as well as to fire fighters and fire officers working for 21 other FRS in the UK, a number of FRS in the Republic of Ireland and a FRS in Denmark.
NFRS’s wildfire training courses teach a number of important skills and concepts related to wildfire suppression operations and incident management. Some of the key topics covered include:
- Wildfire terminology
- Understanding fire behaviour and fuels
- Understanding the wildfire environment
- Situational awareness
- Identifying and managing risks using wildfire-specific safety protocols
- Wildfire Prediction System
- Wildfire suppression tactics and suppression plans
- Incident Command at wildfire incidents
- Field skills
- Opportunities and risks of suppressing wildfires during the hours of darkness
NFRS also teaches valuable transferable skills that are of vital importance for all personnel required to operate at a wildfire incident, including map reading and navigation.
One of the key reasons for the success of the training is that all of the courses are structured around a tried and tested teaching model which includes a variety of learning techniques. NFRS’s training courses combine theoretical classroom sessions with discussions of real life case studies, table top exercises to confirm understanding and practical sessions to practise techniques in the field. During the 5 day advanced level wildfire courses, NFRS also invites guest speakers who work outside the fire and rescue sector to provide valuable insights from the point of view of other stakeholders.
Local partnership working on wildfire issues
For nearly a decade, NFRS has been actively engaging and collaborating with a range of partner agencies with the aim of improving the County’s resilience to wildfire. This partnership working continues to this day. Some of this collaborative work is facilitated by the Northumberland Fire Group, a multiagency stakeholder group which was setup in Northumberland to address wildfire issues to help protect people, the economy and the environment. During recent years, NFRS has been working particularly closely with Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) on a number of local wildfire projects and initiatives. Two of these key projects will now be briefly explained, starting with the Northumberland Collaborative Burning Project and then followed by the Wildfire Automatic Detection System Project.
Northumberland Collaborative Burning Project
In September 2013, NFRS began work with NNPA to deliver an ambitious and innovative two year project within the Northumberland National Park. The project, called the Northumberland Collaborative Burning Project, will help to reduce the risk of wildfires in the County and will therefore help protect people, the economy and the environment.
The project is being part-funded by NNPA Sustainable Development Fund and is also being supported by the Northumberland Fire Group.
As has been mentioned, dry springs and summers during recent years have led to a number of wildfires across the heather moorland of the Northumberland National Park. Unless properly managed the peat soils, which have taken thousands of years to establish, can catch fire and burn down to the bedrock. They are irreplaceable, along with the heather, game and wildlife that lives on them.
In response to recent wildfire incidents, and in close consultation with NNPA and Natural England, NFRS has designed and developed the collaborative burning project. During the project, NFRS will deliver specialist wildfire training to fire fighters working at rural community fire stations at Bellingham, Rothbury and Wooler, all of which are situated in/adjacent to the Northumberland National Park.
The training is designed in two parts: theory sessions delivered at each fire station; and, hands-on practical training delivered during collaborative burns held at a number of sites throughout the National Park.
The highly innovative concept of this project means collaborative burns will bring together a number of stakeholders to work together to share knowledge, expertise and experience which will be to the benefit of all individuals and organizations involved. Each collaborative burn involves individuals from multiple agencies attending previously identified sites in remote rural locations to plan and implement controlled burns. The burns are completed to remove vegetation, in order to reduce the risk of fire spread, but they are also conducted to simulate wildfires in order to provide the opportunity for training with live fire.
Each collaborative burn is being meticulously planned. The sites of the burns are being specifically identified to ensure that high risk locations are targeted. The high risk areas that have been identified are those that are hard to burn for fuel management or areas that could represent a significant risk to wildfire spread if a wildfire were to occur. All of the collaborative burns are being completed by trained wildfire experts from Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, retained fire fighters who work from the rural fire stations in/near the National Park, and local landowners and managers. There are significant benefits of involving multiple agencies in the burns. Firstly, firefighters and land managers get to know one another and can develop a good working relationship, which may be of significant importance if they need to work together in the future during a wildfire incident. Secondly, firefighters and land managers have the opportunity to exchange knowledge and good practice on burning and suppression techniques.
The project also aims to provide new skills to the next generation of firefighters and land management employees who will work within the National Park. During the project, wildfire specialists and retained firefighters from NFRS will deliver training to young people aged 13-17 years old who attend branches of the Young Firefighters Association at Rothbury and Wooler Fire Stations. These sessions will provide young people with wildfire training and map reading and navigation skills. The skills to be taught are of vital importance for firefighters attending wildfire incidents, and are also key skills for those employed in land management professions, thus providing young people with important transferable skills to help them in their future careers.
Northumberland pilot of an automatic detection system for wildfire
During 2012, Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service began working with Northumberland National Park Authority and TMS Europe to trial and pilot an automated detection system for providing an early warning for wildfire.
The pilot – the first of its kind in the UK – is currently taking place on the Debdon Hills, near Rothbury. The pilot detection system is currently overlooking the Simonside Special Area of Conservation, which is designated for high level protection due to the presence of important habitats and species.
The innovative system being piloted is a hybrid system presently used in waste bunkers of inflammable materials (mandatory in Germany). The system comprises of two cameras positioned next to one another: an infrared camera to detect variations in heat, and an optical camera to provide camera operators with a method of verifying any alarms that are triggered.
The cameras are mounted on an existing telecommunications mast and are capable of detecting wildfires at a distance of 5 miles (giving a theoretical coverage of over 50,000 acres from one camera). Any variation in heat above a predetermined threshold will trigger an alarm and an operator from a remote site can then train the infrared camera and live view camera on the identified area to determine if there is a wildfire before contacting Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service.
The project has been made possible due to a grant from Northumberland Uplands Leader through its independent local panel, the NU Leader Local Action Group. The system was installed in December 2013 and is currently being trialled and tested using small live fires. NNPA and NFRS will work together to conduct further tests of the system throughout 2014.
The results of the pilot will be shared widely with local, national and international stakeholders through a variety of different means and events. If successful, the possibility of expanding the system to cover a larger geographical area of Northumberland National Park will be considered, and it is anticipated that there will be a wide range of applications for the system across the UK and overseas.
International partnership working and the EUFOFINET project
For the last decade, NFRS has been particularly proactive in actively seeking and forming strong international partnerships on wildfire issues. These partnerships have provided opportunities for officers from NFRS to visit and work with leading wildfire agencies around the World, including those in the USA, South Africa, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. This collaboration with other agencies has enabled NFRS to develop its knowledge, understanding, and expertise to inform the development and adoption of new and improved wildfire policies, procedures and protocols.
One of the recent international collaboration projects that NFRS has been involved in was the EUFOFINET Project. EUFOFINET, which stands for European Forest Fire Networks, was a two year project that was co-financed by the EU through the INTERREG IVC Programme. The aim of the project was to improve and enhance regional and local approaches to wildfire prevention and suppression in Europe.
EUFOFINET involved 13 partners from 9 European countries and was delivered between October 2010 and December 2012. The project activities were structured according to five key themes:
- Wildfire suppression techniques and tactics
- Training using simulation tools
- Territorial surveillance, detection and prevention strategies
- Mapping hazards and fire risks
- Restoring fire-damaged terrain
EUFOFINET was a significant project with ambitious goals and the end results of the project were particularly impressive. One of the most significant positive outcomes of the project was the compilation of the first “European Glossary for Wildfires and Forest Fires”, a substantial glossary containing more than 500 terms and definitions which has been translated into English, French, Greek, Italian, Polish, Slovak and Galician. A translation into Croatian is also expected in the near future.
Another key outcome of the EUFOFINET project was that each partner produced an Action Plan outlining how they would attempt to implement some of the examples of good practice that were exchanged during this project within their own locality/country. These action plans represent a firm commitment from all of the partners to further develop and improve the way they manage wildfire prevention, wildfire detection, wildfire suppression and land restoration. The importance of these action plans cannot be overstated. For example, it was the development of NFRS’s action plan which provided a catalyst for the partnership working with NNPA on the automatic detection system and collaborative burning projects. It is through the action plans that the EUFOFINET project continues to have an important legacy within the partner regions.
Wildfire is an important issue in Northumberland and, more broadly, in the UK. NFRS has been working for a number of years to improve how wildfire risk is managed and is now recognised as the UK’s leading fire and rescue service for wildfire training and operational policy issues. The Service is currently leading the wildfire agenda at the national level, with Chief Fire Officer Alex Bennett as the lead officer within the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) for Wildfire and the Chair of the England and Wales Wildfire Forum, and Deputy Chief Fire Officer Paul Hedley as the Chair of the CFOA Wildfire Group.
During the last decade, NFRS has made significant progress in improving the wildfire-specific training it provides to fire fighters and the procedures and strategies it employs to prepare for and suppress wildfires. The key underlying factor that has helped NFRS to make these improvements has been a willingness and commitment to work closely in partnership with stakeholders and experts at the local, national and international level. NFRS is continuing to explore, nurture and develop new opportunities for partnership working to enable its personnel to continue to share knowledge, good practice and new ideas which will inform future improvements to wildfire risk reduction and management in Northumberland.