Climate change ‘behind alarming spread of wildfires’

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Climate change ‘behind alarming spread of wildfires’


Published: May 18, 2021

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Wildfires have become more frequent in Britain because of climate change and fire services must prepare for “more flammable landscapes” similar to Spain and the United States, according to scientists.

The number of wildfires was well above the long-term average last year, continuing a trend in place since 2018. Several devastating fires have occurred this year.

Seventy-five large fires, covering at least six hectares, were recorded last year. This number was exceeded only in 2019, according to analysis of records going back to 2008 by the London School of Economics (LSE).

In 2014 one large fire was recorded. This increased to four in 2016, then 17 in 2017 and 74 a year later. Last year 13,793 hectares were burnt, compared with 85 in 2014. Last month significant wildfires occurred at Marsden Moor near Huddersfield and the Mourne Mountains in Co Down.

Separate government figures obtained by Lord Botham, the former England cricketer, show a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires from 4,000 tonnes in 2015 to 294,000 tonnes in 2019.

Dr Tom Smith, assistant professor in environmental geography at LSE, said: “Whereas once there would be a big fire year every few years, now it is becoming annual. We need to be prepared for more flammable landscapes. This preparation has already started with specialist wildfire teams and tactical advisers being appointed in fire and rescue services up and down the country.”

He said that firefighters in Britain were learning from those in Spain, South Africa and the US, which “currently face a fire risk that we might see in the coming decades”.

Smith said that climate change was contributing to the risk by increasing the probability of dry spells and heatwaves. Other factors included an increase in visitors with campfires and changes in land management. “Traditional land management practices of using fire or grazing to thin moorland vegetation have been abandoned in many places, leading to more fuel availability on the ground,” he said.

Botham said that the recent ban on disposable barbecues in parts of Dorset and Hampshire would help, and that the restrictions should extend to sky lanterns and fireworks. He said that more winter burns of excess vegetation were needed to create firebreaks.


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