Wildfires – a future burning issue?

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A record breaking temperature for Scotland of 33.2°C was set in Motherwell this June. While the hot, dry weather this summer has been great for BBQs and trips to the beach, it has also provided ideal conditions for wildfires.

A recent BBC news article highlighted the above average number of wildfires happening in Europe this year, with the most deadly in Greece where more than 90 people lost their lives.

The UK has been no exception, with a total burned area of 13,888 hectares – more than four times the average over the last decade. The largest of these fires on Winter Hill near Bolton and Saddleworth Moor, Tameside, each scorched an area of around 18 square kilometres (7 square miles).

Numerous wildfires have also occurred here in Scotland. In May, smoke was seen rising above the city of Edinburgh from a fire on Arthur’s Seat, with one person reported as being injured. In the Highlands, fire and rescue services have been called out to tackle extensive fires in Sutherland, Skye, Torridon and Rum. The wildfire in Torridon left over 1,000 properties without power and a helicopter was deployed to help tackle the blaze. Powerlines supplying the north of Scotland were also under threat in Sutherland.

How common are wildfires in the UK?

Despite our temperate climate, fire and rescue services deal with around 70,000 grassland fires a year in the UK. However, as demonstrated this summer, their frequency can increase dramatically in years of drought.

For example, during the record-breaking heatwave that hit Europe in 2003, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service recorded 13,718 grassland fires – more than double the annual average excluding these exceptional years (5,494). Two hundred and twenty nine of these were categorised as “primary fires”. Primary fires are those which cause harm to people, property damage, or are attended to by five or more pumping appliances.

During the more recent drought in 2011, Highland and Islands fire and rescue services deployed over 1,800 firefighters to deal with 70 significant wildfire incidents between 29th April and 5th May, which destroyed around 9,200 hectares of moorland and forestry.

SPICe_Blog_2018_Wildfires_Bar chart

What are the impacts?

For the most part, wildfires in Scotland occur in remote areas. Thankfully this means that damage to communities is rare. But wildfires still have significant economic and environmental impacts.

In the UK, wildfires are estimated to cost around £55 million each year. The 2011, wildfires in the Highlands and Islands resulted in direct costs of over £125,000 to the fire and rescue services, and wider restoration costs estimated at between £7.2m and £26.4m.

Studies of peatland wildfires have revealed their potential to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. As our SPICe Spotlight blog on International Bog Day explains, peatlands can actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by locking up organic carbon in peat soils. Peatland wildfires can have the opposite effect, by burning vast quantities of stored carbon leading to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which further warms the planet.

Peatland wildfires can also have significant and long-term effects on the physical and ecological structure of peat by destroying soil seed banks, and altering soil acidity and nutrient levels leading to a loss of habitat and associated wildlife.

Is climate change to blame?

Climate scientists are cautious to attribute short-lived extreme weather events such as this summer’s heatwave directly to climate change. However, there is evidence to suggest that they may become more frequent.

Written evidence submitted to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee by the Met Office explained how its research shows that the likelihood of the European heatwave of 2003, which resulted in approximately 2000 deaths in the UK, was at least doubled by human influence. Further Met Office research also demonstrates that extreme summer temperature events in Europe, like that endured in 2003, are now 10 times more likely than they were in the early 2000s.

How prepared are we to tackle wildfires?

Containing wildfires takes considerable effort and resources of fire and rescue services. In 2013, the Scottish Government published Wildfire Operational Guidance for the Fire and Rescue Service. The purpose of the guidance is to provide fire and rescue service personnel with additional understanding and awareness of wildfires and to ensure the development of a consistent approach to planning, response and suppression practices.

The Fire and Rescue Service also plays a key role in educating the public about the dangers of wildfires and has published leaflets providing information on how to prevent wildfires and protect property from damage. Wildfire risk is also monitored by the Scottish Wildfire Forum – a multi-agency partnership working to prevent wildfires and limit the impact they have on the Scottish landscape.

Technological advances are also helping us to understand the spread and effects of wildfires. Scottish Natural Heritage has been using detailed satellite imagery to study the recent wildfires in the Highlands and Islands. These images can provide information on water content and vegetation structure to better understand how susceptible land is to fire and what measures can be put in place to improve landscape recovery.

Wildfires 2018 - Rum - Sentinel 2 - Before and after - True colour
Satellite imagery showing the extent damage caused by a wildfire on the Isle of Rum in April 2018. ©SNH; data credits included on image.

As the climate warms, it is likely that the hot, dry conditions of this summer will become more commonplace in Scotland and the risk of wildfire may also increase as a result. A more concerted effort may therefore be required to ensure Fire and Rescue Services are sufficiently equipped to respond to this future threat to rural communities and valuable ecosystems.

Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs