Fire, drought and a dangerous rise in pollution: welcome to tinderbox UK

Fire, drought and a dangerous rise inpollution: welcome to tinderbox UK

26 July 2006

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A fire in north Wales was blazing out of control for a sixth consecutive day. Another has virtually destroyed an important Surrey nature reserve.

In Liverpool alone there are reported to have been 600 separate blazes this month and fire brigades across the UK said yesterday that they have handled thousands more. The prolonged heatwave that has stifled parts of the UK has also brought tinderbox conditions. Water tables in some areas of south-east England are now at levels similar to the drought of 1976.

But the frequency, and potential ferocity, of fires is an immediate concern for the emergency services, English Nature and the National Trust. Yesterday they all issued warnings as temperatures were again forecast to hit the mid 30s celsius today.

Some of the most serious fires have been in the Peak District national park, where deep layers of peat on the remote moors have caught fire and smouldered for days, requiring helicopters to drop water on them. “The intense heat is drying out the land much faster than usual”, said a spokesman for the park. “The conditions are unique. When you think you have put out a fire, it spontaneously bursts into life again. Hot spots keep flaring up.”

Thursley Common in Surrey, one of Britain’s first designated nature reserves, was more than 75% destroyed after a heathland fire, which had appeared to be out, reignited at the weekend. English Nature said the blaze had been “catastrophic” for wildlife. “To lose almost the entire site will make recovery incredibly difficult,” said a spokesman.

“We are very worried about peatland fires,” said David Bullock, head of conservation at the National Trust. “If these go up, we lose a lot of carbon and exacerbate the climate change problem”.

The Met Office yesterday warned some national parks that fire risks on heaths and moorland were expected to be “exceptionally high” over the next few days. This level automatically triggers temporary suspension of the right to roam over many upland areas, including parts of the Peak District and the North York moors. Footpaths, however, will remain open.

The Met Office also warned that higher pollution levels were an increasing danger. “We know that in Germany accident and emergency admissions are up 25% and I think we will see the mortality rate rise sharply,” said a spokesman. He added that it was likely that this month would be declared the hottest July on record.

“Old and vulnerable people already suffering in the heat are at greater risk when breathing in greater amounts of nitrogen dioxide pollution,” said Dr Gary Corlett of the University of Leicester.

The Environment Agency warned yesterday that the drought which had been largely confined to south-east England was now spreading across Britain. The agency, which yesterday banned some East Anglian farmers from irrigating crops in order to protect rivers, reported that levels of underground water on which water companies in the south of England mostly depend, were now “exceptionally low” in several areas outside London.

A comparison of aquifer levels showed that the Midlands, East Anglia and Thames regions were all more or less at the same level as in 1976 when the temperature remained above 30C for several weeks. Water companies yesterday said they expected demand to increase by 30% in most areas as the heat built up again after record temperatures last week.

“There is plenty of water but the pressure in the pipes can be stretched and local service reservoirs do not always replenish overnight. All water companies in Britain are asking people to be sensible, especially with sprinklers,” said a spokesman for Water UK.

Thames Water, which expects to hear from the government in the next fortnight whether it will be allowed to impose a drought order on 13m households, said customers were using 7% less water than a year ago because of the hosepipe ban.

“We expect it to be hot and steamy with torrential downpours in places and temperatures in the 30s for the next few days. The weekend will be cooler but temperatures will be above average for the time of year”, said a Met Office spokesman.

According to the Environment Agency, river levels are expected to continue dropping despite localised downpours being expected in the next few days. Most rivers in south-east England are now below normal level or “notably low” for the time of year. Rivers such as the Ely-Ouse in East Anglia and the Severn and Lee in the Chilterns are at 50% of their long term average level. Last week the Thames was at 75% of its average height.

However, the heatwave in Britain pales next to conditions building in continental Europe. French forecasters yesterday placed the eastern half of the country on “orange” alert – the second highest level – warning of more peaks at the weekend. Temperatures were expected to rise above 38C in Germany and over 40C in north and central Italy where communities are on the highest state of health alert.

Around Europe

Met offices across mainland Europe have reported record temperatures for July, just as millions of Britons are heading for some of the hottest areas.

· In France, 40 mostly elderly people have died in the past week.

· In Spain, eight people have died as temperatures have topped 40C.

· In the Netherlands a four-day walking event was cancelled after two participants dropped dead and there have been fatalities in Germany and Austria.

· Portugal has registered “tropical” nights with minimum temperatures above 20C for 12 days running in the southern Alentejo region and for 11 nights in the Algarve.

· A Czech energy grid operator yesterday announced a state of emergency. A sharp rise in air-conditioner use has put pressure on power stations everywhere. Many nuclear plants have been forced to reduce output as there is not enough cold water to cool reactors.

· Both the Po, Italy’s largest river, and the Elbe, in Germany, are in danger of drying up. In Poland, fears for crops have prompted the government to hold prayers for rain.

John Vidal


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