September 27, 2023

UK to set up new Mediterranean-style specialist units

Firefighters will apply new techniques learned in the world’s worst wildfire hot spots as climate change raises risk levels in the UK this summer.

During last year’s heat waves, thousands of fires broke out, one of which even destroyed homes in Wennington, east London.

There have already been hundreds of grass fires this year and in the past two weeks one of the UK’s biggest bushfires ever burned in the Scottish Highlands.

More fire crews are now training in skills from Southern Europe and the US.

Fire chiefs are particularly looking to expand the number of specialist teams trained in burn suppression techniques – the deliberate burning of land to control a fire.

At present, only five UK units from over 50 fire and rescue services specialize in the “fighting fire with fire” technique, mostly in moorland areas.

But Chief Fire Officer Paul Hedley, wildfire chief for the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), said more units — including those in services that span urban and rural areas — will be trained in new ways of wildfire fighting.

Volunteer walking on site

A volunteer walks through Frensham Common, near Farnham, Surrey, hunting for reptiles that survived the blaze

They could then be deployed nationwide, in the event of a major fire, he said.

He added that the risk and threat of such large bushfires was “clearly increasing in the UK”.

“Learning all this from international partners, who are probably several years ahead of us, is a very sensible way to move us forward,” he said.

It is hoped that a UK-wide training program will be put in place as part of a national action plan drawn up in response to the lessons learned from last year’s fires.

One of the leading services is Surrey Fire and Rescue, which has already tackled more than 80 bushfires this year.

The most recent bushfire was last month at Frensham Common, near Farnham, a popular beauty spot.

The cause of the 10-hectare fire is not yet known, but the damage is clearly visible.

From heathland to desolation

Where there was once rich heathland, home to rare species, including sand lizards, there is now desolation.

When the BBC visited, volunteers from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation charity walked the scorched earth, stretched out in a row like a police forensic team, searching for creatures that survived the blaze.

If the immediate impact is shocking, the long-term effects are just as concerning.

“While we can save some of these animals that survived the fire, we are losing an awful lot and losing all that biodiversity. It will take years if not decades for that to come back,” explained trustee Howard Inns.

For county ranger Darren Hill, who supported firefighters fighting the blaze here, it’s hard to see the aftermath and know that more wildfires are on the way.

“To come back and look at a site like this, and to know that I found this species here and that we had smooth snakes there, it takes its toll,” he said.

Matt Oakley

Matt Oakley is a national wildfire tactical consultant who was trained abroad

Meanwhile, Matt Oakley, a fire investigation officer for Surrey Fire and Rescue, uses a thermal imaging drone to survey the site for hidden underground burns.

He is one of the UK’s National Wildfire Tactical Advisers – a group of specialist officers who have already acquired the skills learned abroad and will be training those units.

He says the kind of techniques he’s seen in hotspots as far afield as France and South Africa will be vital in the UK for years to come.

“Our climate is changing — it’s changing beyond recognition,” he explained. “What used to be a nine to 12 year cycle is now every year.

“We’re moving towards a northern Mediterranean climate in the South East of England for the next ten years and this will continue day in, day out,”

Many of the wildfire fighting methods being rolled out in the UK rely on a ‘toolbox’ of skills, from creating natural firebreaks and reducing the ‘fuel load’ of vegetation to deliberately causing controlled burns around bushfires to limit their spread to stop.

Together, they would reduce the need for massive amounts of water during droughts and reduce the number of devices needed on site.

But the firefighters union says new training and techniques are not enough to tackle the growing challenges of climate change. It says more crews are needed after years of budget cuts that have killed thousands of fire
fighters since 2010.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, called for more government funding, saying: “Rising temperatures and the systematic underfunding of the fire and rescue service are a recipe for destruction.”

The government said it gave around £2.6bn to fire and rescue authorities this year, and each authority could decide what to spend it on.

A spokesman said: “The Home Office is working closely with the National Fire Chiefs Council and the England and Wales Wildfire Forum to continue improving and reducing our response to bushfires.”

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