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Summer has now officially ended. Unmemorable in its rainy mildness here in the UK, it was a season many around the world are unlikely to forget.
In July, 19,000 people were evacuated as an unprecedented fire consumed swathes of the Greek island of Rhodes. As of September, firefighters in the country’s northeastern region of Evros are still battling the largest wildfire the EU has ever recorded.
And it’s not just Europe. Smoke engulfed the 32-million-strong city of Chongqing in China, and at least 115 people died as the Hawaiian town of Lahaina on Maui was burnt to the ground last month.
Climate forecasting is not an exact science, but the Met Office believes drier, hotter summers will be increasingly common in the UK, driving up the prevalence of wildfires. This year we in the UK were spared, but in 2022, on the day the 40C (104F) temperature threshold was breached, the London Fire Brigade had its “busiest day since World War II.”
An analysis of 12 years’ worth of wildfire data published by the Forestry Commission shows the areas most likely to find themselves on the frontline.
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The department responsible for the management of England’s forests defines a wildfire as “any uncontrolled vegetation fire which requires a decision, or action, regarding suppression”.
They are considered a “semi-natural” hazard in this country – due to their close link to human activities like land management policy and accidental ignitions or arson – that can occur anywhere from woodlands to shrublands to vegetation in built-up spaces.
Between 2009 and 2021, there were 362,158 wildfires recorded in England. Collectively these burnt an area of 79,126 hectares – equivalent to the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Glasgow combined.
Professor Richard Betts MBE is Head of Climate Impacts Research at the Met Office and he contributed to a study published last year that concluded that if the planet were to warm by just 2C (3.6F) from the 1850 to 1900 average, the frequency of days with “very high” fire risk “is projected to double compared to the recent historical period.”
Speaking to Express.co.uk, he explained that this came down to two things: “If there are periods of less rain – which we do expect in the summer as a result of climate change – but also when the weather’s hotter the landscape dries out, becoming more like tinder which is more likely to burn.”
In terms of the regions most at risk, he claimed their models suggested the South most likely to be affected by these conditions in the future, with the threat particularly acute for the densely-populated South East. “More people there are around to potentially start fires either accidentally or purposefully,” Professor Betts added.
He highlighted the Swinley Forest fire in Berkshire back in 2011, which burnt 300 hectares of land over seven days and required 300 firefighters to be prevented from spreading into Bracknell, where 110,000 people lived.
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In terms of the types of wildfire that burn the greatest area in England, however, heathlands, moorlands and grasslands fare worst. As such, the local authorities combining these landscapes with nearby urbanisation have seen the most land burned.
A total of 10,136 hectares in the Lancashire district of Blackburn with Darwen were burned by wildfires over the past 12 years – more than anywhere else in the country.
Tameside in Greater Manchester came second (9,875 hectares), followed by nearby Oldham (8,584), Bolton (7,623) and Rochdale (4,199).
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The Woodland Trust is also increasingly concerned by wildfires. Head of Health and Safety at the conservation charity Nick Hall told Express.co.uk: “Almost 99.9 per cent of our fires are caused by people.
“Some of them are accidental, people leaving a barbecue behind not meaning any real harm, people discarding glass bottles into hedgerows – you’ve got curved glass, put the sun through it and you get a fire – but a worrying percentage are deliberate.”
According to the latest fire statistics compiled by the Home Office, just under 80,000 fires in England were started on purpose over the year ending March 2023 – 45 per cent of the total number attended. This rate has remained largely unchanged over the past ten years.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) does not think the country’s fire and rescue services are prepared for an ever-heavier burden from wildfires.
General Secretary Matt Wrack said: “The profit demands of big business and the inaction of Government are driving a climate crisis, and last year’s wildfires demonstrated how ill-prepared we are to meet it.”
“Ministers and chief fire officers often talk about ‘resilience’ – but they are not providing adequate resources for firefighters to do their jobs. Since 2010, more than one in five firefighter jobs have been lost and unprecedented numbers of fire stations have been closed.”
He added: “The Westminster and devolved governments must take responsibility for this issue, bring together a UK-wide strategy for wildfires, and reverse the cuts of recent years.”
Alarm bells are ringing. Asked whether scenes similar to Greece and Portugal could soon be witnessed in the UK, Mr Hall answered: “Maybe not at the moment, but it’s not implausible to think that we could see that sort of problem coming because it’s very clear we’re getting warmer every year and we’re getting drier every year.
“If you sow into that mix just how built up we are in comparison to some countries, it’s not implausible to see the same level of risk to people that we’ve seen in our European neighbours and other countries like South Africa and Australia and Hawaii. It’s not implausible at all.”
According to Professor Betts: “If we keep going as we are doing and the world keeps producing carbon and warming the whole world, then sooner or later, those kinds of things could be seen in the UK.”
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