United Kingdom — Devastating fires similar to those that have plagued parts of Greece and Turkey are likely to become common in the UK within years, according to the Fire Brigades Union, which claims there has been a huge rise in the number of outdoor blazes over the past decade.
The union is blaming global warming for a rise in temperature that is turning large parts of rural Britain tinder-dry, with the result that there has been a big increase in the number of outdoor fires since 1997.
Figures collected by the union in the first analysis of its kind reveal that there was a 51 per cent increase in the number of heath and grass fires between 2002 and 2006, compared with the previous five-year period. Between 1997 and 2002 there were 208,908 fires in England, compared with 315,868 for the five years afterwards. Exceptionally arid conditions in 2003 saw the number of fires jump to 110,460 compared with fewer than 50,000 the year before. Firefighters in Wales and Scotland have expressed concerns about similar rises in the number of fires in their regions. Last year the South Wales fire service received 5,500 calls relating to outdoor fires in just 10 days.
The increasing frequency of outdoor fires in the UK has invited comparisons with the situation in southern parts of Europe which are still suffering the consequences of a series of blazes that destroyed a number of beauty spots popular with tourists.
Last year hundreds of fires devastated Greece as heatwaves left the country’s landscape arid. Scores of people lost their lives and some 670,000 acres of land were reportedly destroyed. Parts of Hungary were also left scorched.
‘We’re not yet facing the scale of the fires which hit Greece,’ said the union’s general secretary, Matt Wrack. ‘But it could only be a matter of 10, 15 or 20 years until we are facing outdoor fires on that scale in this country.’
In some parts of the UK, such as Lancashire and Cumbria, the number of outdoor fires has more than doubled in the past decade. Areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire, which is home to important prehistoric rock carvings, have been torched by blazes that will take years and millions of pounds to rectify. Rural areas in Devon, Cornwall and the North have also been plagued by grass fires during recent dry summers.
‘Nearly every year now there’s a massive incident that takes up all our resources,’ said Sean Cahill, regional secretary of the union in Yorkshire and Humberside. ‘It’s having a huge knock-on effect. Natural parks have been closed, which affects tourism in the area. People need to remember these fires also cause pollution.’
The fires also pose a threat to some of the country’s rarest wildlife. Two years ago a five-day blaze ripped through Thursley National Nature Reserve in Surrey, destroying birch trees and heather which are home to many rare species. The fire destroyed two-thirds of the 400-hectare site, which provided shelter for birds including the nightjar and the Dartford warbler.
The union is worried the focus on flooding is distracting public attention from the threat of outdoor fires. ‘It took last year’s floodings to hammer home to policy-makers what we will face as a result of global warming,’ Wrack said. ‘But there is a danger the rising number of large grassland and heathland fires will go unnoticed.’
Some environmental sceptics deny that global warming is having an impact on the UK. But Wrack said the union’s evidence suggested otherwise. ‘We can almost track the impact of global warming by looking at the rising numbers of grassland and heathland fires,’ he said. ‘These are placing enormous strain on already over-stretched fire services and the clear trend is upwards.’
He warned that the increasing number of fires could stretch the service to such extremes that human life could be at risk: ‘They are often very large fires that take weeks to put out and involve the entire resources of several fire brigades.’