Section 3 Introduction
What is Wildfire?
3.1 The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describe a wildfire as:
"Any unplanned and uncontrolled wildland fire that, regardless of ignition source, may require suppression response or other action according to agency policy."
3.2 One of the key elements of the FAO definition is the reference to 'wildland'. The term refers to any part of the landscape in which human development or impact is essentially non-existent except for the presence of basic infrastructure such as roads, railways and power lines.
3.3 As the UK has a predominantly managed landscape, the reference to 'wildland' within the FOA definition may prove to be misleading, therefore a more accurate description of wildfire within the UK is:
"Any uncontrolled vegetation fire which requires a decision, or action, regarding suppression."
Although all non-prescribed vegetation fires technically fall into the above definition, there is a requirement for FRS personnel, and other partner agencies, to use their professional judgment to differentiate between a small vegetation fire and a wildfire event.
3.4 For recording purposes, and to assist in drawing distinction between minor vegetation fires and those that can be logically referred to as wildfire incidents, a wildfire event can also be considered as meeting one or more of the following criteria:
- Involves a geographical area of >1 hectare.
- Has a sustained flame length of >1.5 metres.
- Requires a committed resource of ≥ 4 FRS appliances.
- Requires resources to be committed for ≥ 6 hours.
- Presents a serious threat to life, environment, property and infrastructure.
The criteria also allows a differential to be made between 'small' and 'large' wildfire events due to its inherent scalability.
3.5 The criteria listed above are considered appropriate for FRS use as they assist to enable services to assess the significance of wildfires across a wide range of service impactors, including: geographical area, risk to personnel, service resilience, resource implications, associated financial costs, impact on 'business as usual' and risk to their local communities, environment and infrastructure.
3.6 Some methods of assessment will be more relevant than others. For example, in FRSs with a high 'on call' firefighter establishment and limited, dispersed resources covering a large rural area, the number of appliances mobilised to the wildfire may not provide a true indication of the scale and impact of the fire.
3.7 The suite of options, whether used singularly, or in combination, allows for a much more detailed analysis through the national recording systems of the threat, scale and impact of wildfires to be made than has previously been the case.
Are Wildfires a Problem for the UK?
3.8 Whilst wildfires on the scale of the 'mega fires' experienced in other parts of the world are unprecedented in the UK, very large wildfires are not uncommon, and their frequency and intensity are likely to increase given the predictions for climate change in the UK.
3.9 As the UK does not generally have the same degree of wildland/urban interface (WUI) as countries such as the USA, Australia or the southern Mediterranean states, the impact of wildfires is normally confined to rural areas, and does not ordinarily impact urban centres and their communities.
3.10 Nevertheless, evacuations of communities in areas of the UK have taken place; property and equipment has been destroyed and injuries have occurred. It is important not to be complacent about the wildfire threat and, in fact, UK wildfire events should be seen as a serious threat to the safety of attending personnel, communities and the resilience of fire and rescue services, and not as merely a growing, yet infrequent, inconvenience.
3.11 What should also be borne in mind is that the sheer number of vegetation fires during supportive weather periods, which do not fall within the criteria listed within 3.4 but still require a response, can have an equally detrimental and significant impact on FRSs simply because of their volume and frequency.
3.12 In order to demonstrate and contextualise the wildfire threat in the UK, it is helpful to review the two most recent periods when there was a marked upsurge in wildfire events - 2003 and 2011.
3.13 The UK Fire Statistics for 2003  published by ODPM show that there were 621,000 fires - 152,700 of which were grassland and heathland, accounting for almost a quarter of all FRS attendances at fires.
3.14 The daily average for January 2003 was 40 grassland and heathland fires per day representing 4.2% of the total daily fire average. If this is compared with March and April, the average daily number of grassland and heathland fires rises to 762 and 1,010 respectively, or 36% and then 39% of the daily averages.
3.15 The figures are notable for a number of reasons:
- Analysis shows that the daily averages of most other incident types remain fairly static
i.e. vehicles, buildings, chimney fires.
- The significant increase occurs within a short period of time (4 weeks) indicating that conditions that support a rapid increase in wildfire events can manifest quickly.
- The approximately twenty fold increase does not take into account the fact that the additional wildfires would not have been evenly spread leading to a disproportionately adverse impact on local fire cover and resilience on certain days.
3.16 The early 2011 wildfire season also saw many FRSs dealing with very significant increases in wildfire events. Statistics for England show that for a 19-day period from 18th April there were more than 7,100 wildfires of which 251 were significant in terms of their size, deployed resources and duration.
3.17 The most significant of the English wildfires in terms of resource commitment, impact and profile occurred at Swinley Forest, Berkshire, and affected an area covering 300 hectares, of which 55% was damaged by fire and forestry clearing operations. The fire was the largest ever dealt with by Royal Berkshire FRS and involved support from another 11 FRSs, Forestry Commission, Local Authority and Police, and the use of a significant number of Fire Service national resilience assets.
3.18 The impact of such a high volume of wildfire events in such a short concentrated period presents obvious challenges to FRSs in responding to the wildfires whilst maintaining their ability to meet other emergency operational demands and manage operational budgets.
3.19 Similar demands were also experienced by FRSs in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. As an example, Highland and Islands FRS deployed over 1,800 firefighters to deal with 70 significant wildfire incidents between 29th April and 5th May, which destroyed approx. 9,200 hectares of moorland and forestry, and resulting in direct costs of over £125,000 to H&IFRS and wider restoration costs estimated at between £7.2m and £26.4m.
3.20 Similarly, Northern Ireland FRS was also faced with an almost unprecedented level of wildfire incidents during the 2011 spring season. 3,177 wildfire incidents were attended from 1st January until 12th June, and at one stage during the first bank holiday weekend in May, the fire service was receiving a call every 45 seconds, the busiest period in its history. The total costs of the wildfires attended by NIFRS during the first six months of 2011 were estimated to exceed £8m.
Email: Dean Cowper