News from Wildfire Conference 2011, Sun City May 2011


Runaway Wildfire poses new risk for British fire fighters


Wildfires raging through the United Kingdom over the past weeks mean fire and rescue authorities are looking at expanding the training of firemen so they can cope with wildfire, Paul Hedley, from the Chief Fire Offices’ Association said in an interview at the 5th International Wildfire Conference,  at Sun City, near Johannesburg in South Africa. Fireman in the United Kingdom are almost all “structural” firemen who can douse a burning building but are unfamiliar with how to control a flaming forest.


“There has to be a renewed effort in raising public awareness of the risk of these fires, which are going to increase as the impact of climate change is felt,” Hedley said. This was especially so as forests and woodlands in the United Kingdom were available to the public for recreational purposes.  With a drier, hotter climate the risk of wildfire in these areas was “extremely high”.


Hedley, with colleagues Simon Thorp, director of the Heather Trust and vice-chair of the England and Wales Wildfire Forum, and Steve Gibson, a fire expert from Northumberland, are in South Africa for the global wildfire conference which is a gathering of the world’s top wildfire experts. Wildland fire, never a serious challenge for the United Kingdom, looks set to become a crisis for Britain with April and March the hottest months on record.


In May firemen fought for days to control a wildfire in Swinley Forest near London. At the same times wildfires were burning in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Wales.

“The Fire and Rescue Service in the United Kingdom has never had to deal with wildfire on this scale. If this is what climate change means we have to change our approach,” Hedley said.


Thorp said there was a commitment from all partners involved in land management to work with Fire and Rescue to understand the risks associated with wildfire and to put plans in place to cope in a catastrophe.

“There are partnerships in place in parts of the country where wildfire is an issue, like Northumberland, but these partnerships have to be expanded into more communities.”


Wildfire had always been an issue in Scotland, home to 75% of the world’s heather, he said. “Heather has to burn, it is part of its natural cycle, but it has to be managed to ensure it regenerates and is not destroyed,” said Thorp.


Gibson said forest managers now had to consider the risk of wildfire in the development of new plantations. “Until now trees have been planted with no thought given to wildfire, it cannot stay that way,” he said. “”Wildfire is now, more than ever, a global issue.”