Country report for the UK (IFFN No. 27)

United Kingdom: Country Report
for the United Kingdom

(IFFN No. 27 – July 2002, p. 68-76)


The United Kingdom has a maritime climate with moderate temperatures and regular rainfall. The forest in the northern half of Scotland is the maritime fringe of the European boreal zone, further south it becomes the temperate and deciduous forest zone. Only 11% of the landscape is covered by forest (1). With a moderate climate and low forest cover forest fires in the United Kingdom are not common. However, wildfires including grass, heath, scrub and peat fires are quite common. There are also regional differences in climate between the north and west, which are generally wet and the east and south of the country that can be quite dry. In some areas to the east of the mountain ranges there is also a rain shadow effect.

Prescribed burning is used extensively for habitat management for Red Grouse, an upland game bird that lives in heather (Calluna vulgaris). Fire is also used extensively to regenerate grazing land for cattle, sheep and deer. In forests, fire is used to clear branches or heather from sites as a ground preparation tool prior to forest establishment by planting or natural regeneration. Firebreaks are also sometimes created alongside forests by burning. Fire is used occasionally on farmland in Scotland to burn straw, a practise that has been stopped in England and Wales. Prescribed burning is used more frequently on private land than on publicly owned land.

Most land, including forest, is privately owned but the Forestry Commission, the state forest service, is the single largest landowner in the UK. The average size of a private estate or land holding is higher than in many countries in the Baltic region, especially the traditional forest and sporting estate found in many parts of the uplands of Scotland. In Scotland, some 88% of the land is in private ownership with 67% of land held in units larger than 2,000 hectares (2).

Fire hazard is increasing in some areas where there is insufficient heather burning. Also, new native pinewoods are being created to fulfill bio-diversity objectives (Tab.1) and heather is growing along with the regenerating trees. There is also some concern about the potential for increasing heather fuel loads in the future. This is likely to occur due to a reduction in grazing pressures caused by the rationalization of upland farms and pressure from conservation interests to reduce wild deer populations. Heather also returns to some pine and larch forests after thinning. There has also been a reduction in staff available for heather burning operations due to economic pressures (3).

Table 1. Planting and regeneration of Scottish native pinewoods (ha) (1)

Most of the forest resource consists of either plantations of species like Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir or broadleaf trees (1). With these species both the plantation and broadleaf areas achieve canopy closure which kills off the surface fuels, like heather. The fire hazard in most forests is therefore low. It is generally only forests with pine or larch trees that a shrub layer of heather or blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilis)develops. Although there are droughts the litter and organic soil layers generally do not dry out sufficiently to become available fuel in the main spring fire season. Summer droughts do occur creating fire hazards on heath, scrub, peat areas and some forest areas.

Fire risks are increasing with higher levels of public access to forests and moorland. Climate change scenarios also suggest increasing risks in the east and south of the country but stable or reduced risks elsewhere (4). Heather and grasses will continue to have a significant fire risk, especially in the spring. Heather and grasses have small particle sizes, which can be considered as one-hour fuels (5) i.e. to have a very short drying time. Escapes from prescribed heather burning operations do occur. The interface between heather moorland management and young forests, especially new native pinewood areas, is of particular concern. Arson also occurs in areas of social tension.

Wildfires traditionally used to be put out by large numbers of people using fire beaters. From the 1980’s this was augmented with helicopters using underslung dipper buckets (6). However there are increasing problems of resources in terms of manpower and helicopter use due to financial pressures. The mechanization of many rural jobs has reduced the manpower available for fire fighting. Helicopters are expensive and helicopter companies have started to take long-term contracts, making the helicopters more difficult to hire to fight fires, at short notice.

Co-operative mechanisms called rural fire groups or forest fire protection groups are being created to cope with the developing fire situation. These groups are public/private sector partnerships. The groups include private estates, Fire Brigades, Forestry Commission, and heritage agencies. The group approach is being adopted on a wide scale. New types of specialist fire fighting equipment have also become available making motor manual systems increasingly cost-effective.

Fire Statistics

The information on wildfires is poor. Table 2 relates specifically to fire brigade attendance at fires. No statistics are available on the area of land consumed by wildfires nor on the number of fires put out solely by private or state forest (Forestry Commission) staff. No statistics are available specifically on forest fires.

All wildfires are the responsibility of the county or regional fire brigade.

Fire brigades are generally split between full-time firemen in city-based stations and part-timers in the rural stations. The bulk of work for the fire brigades is either house fires or road traffic accidents.

Table2. Number of wildfires in the United Kingdom1988-1998

Source – Home Office Statistical Bulletin 1998, United Kingdom Fire Statistics

* A primary fire is defined as a fire with either a casualty or a fire with more than five fire brigade appliances or five crews in attendance (latter definition more likely for wildfires).

** A secondary fire is a fire with four or fewer appliances or crews in attendance.

The Forestry Commission published information on fires in their own forests only until 1989. The average area of Forestry Commission forest that was burnt by wildfire between 1973-1983 and 1985-1989 has been estimated at 710 ha (7) and 497 ha (6) per annum, respectively. The area of forest burnt on private land is likely to exceed these figures. Overall the statistics that are available are likely to underestimate both the number and area of wildfires in the UK. The impact of large fires is also not registered by the system.

The trend in the number and size of fires is related largely to the weather both in spring, the main prescribed burning season, and in the summer. The high number of fires in the period 1994-1998 reflects dry periods in those years. Large heather fires can happen in any year because of the short drying time of the fuel.

The vast majority of fires are human-caused but there are historical records of lightning started fires of small and landscape scale (8, 9, 10). Lightning fires were recorded with fire fronts 8-11 kilometres long, which also burnt 2 metres into the peat. It has been estimated that some forests of the eastern highlands of Scotland have had fires at frequent return intervals (11, 12). Fire and the pine forests of Scotland have had a continuing relationship that has been much discussed in the literature (13, 14). Although it is only recently that researchers and managers have started to look beyond fire as an event, usually considered catastrophic, to the gradation of effects generated by the different intensity and severity effects caused by variations in fire behaviour during a fire.

One difference found in Scottish forests from some of the drier parts of the boreal zone is the presence of a vigorous shrub layer in the forest, largely consisting of heather and blueberry. There is also often a deep organic soil layer. In dry conditions, a large amount of fuel, both surface fuel and peat can become available. The presence of a continuous high water table also stimulates root development close to the soil surface. So when there is a drought and a forest fire occurs, the fires tend to be stand replacement fires. The extensive tree mortality is likely to be caused by damage to the crowns from the high-intensity surface fire coupled with root damage from charring of the organic soil layer.

Heather Fires

Heather and associated vegetation covers some 27% of Scotland’s land area and 3.8% of the land area of England and Wales. Estimates of the actual area vary but in Scotland, it was estimated in 1970 as 12,600 km2 with 18,300 km2 of bog (peat) with grass and heather, totaling some 30,900 km2 (15). The equivalent area in England and Wales was some 14,000 km2 (16). Heather, therefore, covers some very large areas of the landscape in a continuous shrub layer.

Heather Fuel Loads

After heather is burnt it goes through four successional stages over time: pioneering, building, mature and degenerate. These phases also represent broad guidelines for the quantity of fuel that one can expect to find in an area. The quantity of biomass is also related to normal bio-geographic factors such as climate, soils, altitude and exposure as well as the reduction of fuels by the grazing of herbivores such as cattle, sheep and deer.

Figure 1.Fuel load of heather over time – net dry matter (17)

The potential available fuel is high it also has tremendous continuity in both the vertical and horizontal planes. When dry enough to burn this creates fires of quite high fire intensity (18).

Heather is ideally burnt in prescribed (controlled) burns on an 8-15 year cycle. The aim is to create a network of habitats of different ages of heather at a small scale. This is the habitat the game bird the “Red Grouse” prefers. The ideal width of each fire is 15-50m. Fires are generally lit to burn with the wind. The width and the intensity of the fire are managed by controlling the fire at the “shoulders” of the head of the fire. Both this is hot hard work with escapes a constant danger.

The traditional tools used for extinguishing heather fires are long-handled fire beaters or scrubbers with wire mesh or metalheads. More recently “pump and roll” techniques using very high-pressure fire fogging units has proved popular. Generally, helicopters are only used when either a fire is completely out of control or is threatening a forest.

Although the UK has regular rainfall heather fires often happen where there is no water, at or near the top of the hills. This is another reason for the popularity of the fire fogging systems, which use low volumes of water. Often these units are mounted on light, small all-terrain vehicles.

Table 3 shows that the majority of heather fires either prescribed burns or wildfires would be classed as “High” or “Very High” fire danger in the Australian system (19). This surprises many people.

Table 3. Scottish heather fires and the Australian fire danger ratings compared

* Most prescribed burning of heather achieves flame lengths of between 1.5-4 metres.
** Heather wildfire (escapes or runaways) recorded at 2600-2800 kW/M(20)

Fire Research

Most fire research in the UK relates to either to historical studies of charcoal records or to the study of heather fire ecology and fire history (21). A resume of current work in this area is on a website:

Other current research includes work being carried out on the fire intensity and fire effects of traditional burning practices in North West Scotland (Alistair Hamilton). There is also a remote sensing project being carried out by the Scottish Agricultural College and the Game Conservancy Trust (Siobahn Egan), which is attempting to estimate heather bio-mass from satellite images.

A second part of this project, of more interest to fire researchers, is the development of a field measurement technique for quantifying heather fuel loads. Basic measurements are being taken including biomass, bulk density, surface area to volume ratios, and packing ratios etc. The biomass load is being quantified by destructive sampling and a simple measuring stick system has been developed with a good correlation between heather height and total biomass.

Technical Research and Development

Wildfire related technical research has been carried out in three areas. First the re-engineering and further development of “Focstop”, the environmentally friendly wetting agent and foam. Second the development of a range of high-pressure low volume fire fogging systems. Third, productivity trials of a range of equipment in fire test conditions.

The “Focstop” foam product will be familiar to many fire fighters in Europe. It has been used for many years in Spain. However the original Japanese supplier ceased production and a British firm has taken over production. Development work is being carried out to further improve the product.

For some years a Scottish pump manufacturer has been developing a range of “fire fogging” units. The concept of the units is to maximise the efficiency of water use by creating a fog of small droplets of water. This removes some oxygen from the fire environment and creates the maximum cooling effect for a given volume of water. Outputs range from 6, 15 and 24 litres per minute of the fog of water, which is pumped out at 210 bar i.e. very high pressure. This system has proved very effective with heather, shrub and peat fires. The units are used extensively on private estates for heather burning and by fire brigades. The units have been used successfully in Australian bush fires as well.

The Technical Development Branch of the Forestry Commission has recently carried out productivity trials on various fire suppression systems (20). The systems tested included:

  • Belt and wire mesh fire beaters

–          Short handle with rubber conveyor belt head
–          Long handle with wire mesh head
–          Adjustable handle with mop head (strips of conveyor belt,)
–          Long handle with steel pan head and scrubbing chain

  • Back-mounted air blowers
  • Water pump systems

–          Knapsack/flex-pack sprayers
–          Conventional water pumps
–          Fire fogging pumps
–          Fire fogging pump with a team of fire beaters
–          Foam systems

Some tools failed some tests (20). Rubber belt heads failed in heather fires. Wire mesh beaters and metal “scrubbers” did not work with grass fires. For most grass and heather fire situations a mixture of a water-based system with an appropriate beater head worked best. On the hotter heather fires the best combination was a fire fogging unit with a three-person support team using long-handled wire mesh or scrubber head beaters. With grass fires it was fire fogging or knapsack sprayer with the support team equipped with long-handled rubber belt head beaters. The use of wetting agents and foam to further improve the efficiency of fire fogging units needs further investigation.

Operational Developments

Big wildfires fires are rare in the UK but not absent. Usually the large fires are moorland fires. Moorland has a lower risk of catastrophic damage than a forest crop because heather is a fire adapted plant, which is likely to recover. Also moorland has a lower value per hectare than a forest crop. Resources cannot therefore be dedicated full time to create cover but are scaled up or down according to circumstances.

When a large fire occurs helicopters, fire engines, pumps, hoses, fire beaters and large numbers of staff need to be called up at short notice. Along with the demands at the fireline this puts a lot of stress on the staff involved be they from the Fire Brigade, private estates or agencies. Good co-ordination and control of these resources is crucial to the success of fire suppression operations.

A key operational change to achieve improved management of incidents has been the development of forest fire protection groups as public/private sector partnerships, especially in Scotland. A key aim is to create a fire fighting resource that can cope with larger wildfires, both forest, and moorland.

The aim of the groups is to:

  • Improve labor and equipment availability at short notice,
  • Improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and communication on the fire ground,
  • Improve safety, training, cost-sharing, and general mutual assistance.

The first fire group was set up in the North East of Scotland in the Grampian Fire Brigade area some 20 years ago to protect forestry interests. Moorland interests are more evident in the newer groups established in South Grampian (1997), Speyside (1999) and most of the Highlands (2000). Some of the national park areas of England are being covered with equivalent arrangements called Countryside Partnership Schemes.

Figure 2. Fire Groups in Scotland 2000

Experience has shown the benefits of prior planning and preparation to cope successfully with large fire situations. The fire groups help by creating a focus for this work. The core planning information for the groups are the land managers own fire plans and fire maps all using standard symbols. Lists of personnel and equipment that are available from the private sector, Forestry Commission and other agency are also prepared. Although the responsibility for controlling all fires rests with the Fire Brigade under the Fire Act 1947 in practice landowners carry insurance to cover their own costs of putting out fires, including staff, equipment and helicopters.

The fire maps, fire plans, resource lists, and where appropriate helicopter authorizations, are given to the fire brigade and kept in the regional control room. Some groups have common radio frequencies to allow different estates to talk to each other at a fire. Standard operating procedures (SOP’s) have been agreed in each area to aid the group working at a fire. A key function identified in the SOP’s is the role of the incident control team, including representatives from the land management unit, private or public sector that has been affected. The concepts have been adapted from Australian incident control systems (22) used at large wildfires.

Common positions on health and safety and training standards are being agreed at a national level in Scotland between the private sector represented by Timber Growers Association and the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association (CACFOA). Communication with the groups established elsewhere in the UK is also being developed. A key aspect leading to the success of the groups is that they are local. Competency-based training to improve the standard of staff carrying out prescribed burning and attending wildfires is being developed for both land managers and the fire brigades. When achieved the competency will be recognized by vocational qualifications.

Figure 3. Duchery Beg, Glen Tanar Estate: Fires 1996-1999

As an example of the improvement that can be made through the investment in training and systems Table 4illustrates the change in approach between two similar fires on Glen TanarEstate in North East Scotland, one in 1996 the other in 1999. Initially, both fires were wind and slope driven, with comparable fire intensities of between2600-2800 kW/M, The rate of spread of the 1999 fire was around 600-800 m/hr. Both fires were slowed as they encountered previously burned areas. The 1999fire overall had a higher forward ROS and fire intensity.

Table 4. Glen Tanar Estate Duchery Beg fires compared 1996-1999

* Private sector staff from local estates.

The key changes included new equipment in the form of fire fogging units and estate radio systems with a common radio frequency. Fire group personnel had also attended training in: fire behavior, fire suppression, call out procedures, SOP’s, and incident control systems. The total direct cost of fire suppression of the 1996 fire was £9,800 and of the1999 fire was £2000. The helicopter in used in 1996 cost £3200 of the £9,800.


Fire suppression strategies, tools and techniques have been developed according to local needs in the UK. These needs have been identified by first establishing likely fire behavior, especially of heather. Then by looking at historical fire events to create an understanding of the local fire regime. With this information, we have tried to identify appropriate fire suppression tools, effective fire suppression techniques and appropriate organizational structures.

An understanding of the economic values threatened by fire along with fire fighting costs helps define appropriate financial support for pre-planning and fire fighting. The frequency and type of fires will determine whether a full fire fighting service is required or more use can be made of the private sector and other local resources. Partnership approaches can create conditions for “best value” where the skills of land managers, largely gained from prescribed burning operations, can be linked to the resource base of publicly funded fire brigades.

 It is difficult to relate our experience to the Baltic area directly. However the value of partnership working, systems development and training, will transcend any boundary or border. I wish you all success.

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Michael Bruce
Glen Tanar Estate

Brooks House, Glen Tanar

Aboyne Aberdeenshire AB34 5EU

Fax:                           ++44-13398-86047
Tel:                            ++44-13398-86451

Note by GFMC: This country report has been presented as a contribution to BALTEX FIRE 2000 (Kuopio, Finland, 5-9 June 2000; see BALTEX FIRE 2000 Report in IFFN No. 24).


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