With the threat of wildfires increasing, how is the UK’s response being coordinated?

With the threat of wildfires increasing, how is the UK’s response being coordinated?

Photo: Paul Hedley, Chief Fire Officer of Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service

The UK is not a wildfire hotspot, when compared to places such as the Mediterranean or Australia, yet wildfires still pose a threat to life, health and property. This risk is only likely to grow with climate change, with wildfires increasing in frequency and intensity at higher latitudes. In February 2020, the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society hosted a meeting of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Wildfire Group, who coordinate the UK’s response to wildfire. For the last eight years the group has been headed by Paul Hedley, Chief Fire Officer of Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, where he has served for 33 years. Our Centre Manager, Dr Adriana Ford, talked to Paul about the role of the NFCC Wildfire Group, the importance of wildfire in the UK, and how researchers and the fire service can work together for an improved understanding and response to wildfire.

Adriana: Why did the National Fire Chiefs Council wildfire group form?

Paul: We established the National Fire Chiefs Council Wildfire Group in August 2011, bringing together Fire & Rescue Services from right across the UK to develop our understanding, response, preparation and our planning for wildfire. The 2011 wildfire season was a huge challenge for our services, and it was really clear that we needed coordination of thinking, training and tactics across the Fire & Rescue Service sector. I think we’ve been reasonably successful in trying to improve things. Wildfires now have a much greater platform than when I joined the service, and it’s something which thankfully is now becoming a greater area of focus for Fire & Rescue Services across the UK. 

Adriana: How important are wildfires to the UK Fire and Rescue Service? Is it a big issue?

Paul: It’s becoming a bigger issue. We’ve always had really large wildfires – certainly I can cast my mind back to 1990 when Northumberland had around five really big, significant wildfires – but they’re becoming increasingly important for Fire & Rescue Services to focus on, because they are so resource-intensive and difficult to logistically support, they can present a significant risk to responders and they’re difficult to command and control. If you tie that in with the fact that, across the UK, the capacity and resources of our fire services is a lot smaller than what they were ten years ago, it really emphasises the importance of understanding wildfires in much more detail, and improving our partnerships, pre-planning and operational tactics so we can manage our resources, and the incidents more effectively. 

“they’re becoming increasingly important for Fire & Rescue Services to focus on, because they are so resource-intensive and difficult to logistically support, they can present a significant risk to responders and they’re difficult to command and control”

Adriana: What do you think the biggest challenges are for UK Fire & Rescue Services with regards to wildfire?

Paul: I think one particular challenge is that every Fire & Rescue Service is responsible for identifying its own risk within its own local area.  The Fire and Rescue National Framework in England requires services to develop an integrated risk management plan, but wildfire risk across the UK is different in different places. For example, in areas such as Northumberland it’s very significant, in metropolitan areas less so, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a wildfire risk in every service in the UK. Just getting our fire services to understand that, and to recognise the risk and threat that wildfire presents, is a challenge. The risk is not just from afforestation, or lowland heath, or moorland. Crop fires are a significant problem with wildfire too, and have led to quite a number of premises being destroyed, and these fires have grown into pretty significant wildfire incidents in their own right. So the challenge is making sure that there is that understanding that wildfire risk applies to everybody. We are still some way off in raising the level of capability in the fire services to a consistent level, and it’s also an issue trying to standardise training requirements, national response mechanisms, individual service capability and support. We’ve done a lot but there’s still a lot left to do.

Paul Hedley, second from right, with senior officers in the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service at cross border Exercise Pennine Way 

Adriana: What research is most needed from the perspective of the Fire & Rescue Service? What are the knowledge gaps that researchers and academics could help with?

Paul: Wildfires are very difficult to predict, and it is difficult to forecast the potential impacts. So there is work underway to develop a fire danger rating system, which I think will have really significant benefits for the fire services. It will help us properly plan and position resources to deal with the wildfires. We would also be keen to have a better understanding and greater detail relating to the severity of those fires.

In terms of impact on firefighter safety, there’s still a large gap in understanding the physical impacts of spending long durations dealing with wildfires. That’s not just the direct physical impact on the individual, but also health risk on the firefighter from inhalation, and contamination through wildfire by-products, whether that’s smoke or burnt materials. This also has implication for understanding the wider risk to local communities. It’s slightly unfortunate that there hasn’t been a great deal of previous research into the wider impacts and risk of wildfire from a societal and economic perspective in the UK, so we sometimes struggle to articulate the economic impact of wildfire – what it actually means when we have wildfires burning for weeks on end, as it did in Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill, and what the long term impacts are, not just in terms of restoration of the landscape, but the longer term impacts on public health, air quality, water quality, and things like that.

So there’s a lot to be looked at, and that’s one of the reasons why we are so excited that the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires is going to be looking at many areas that we are really interested in, because they are going to have such consequential impacts and benefits for the fire services sector. 

Members of the National Fire Chiefs Council Wildfires Group visiting the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society, Imperial College London

Adriana: In what way can the Fire & Rescue Service and researchers better support each other? What would you like to see to help that relationship?

Paul: I think the Fire & Rescue Service could be better at articulating what we want researchers to focus on, we could definitely be more proactive with this. I also think there is a real opportunity for us just to support researchers out in the field. We’ve got a lot of resource at our disposal. For example, we’ve got fire services which regularly support our local land management agencies by doing prescribed burns to manage fuel risk, which presents an opportunity for researchers to get involved. If there’s research which requires plots of land to be burnt, why not have us work together?  I also think we need to be much more nimble and proactive in contacting researchers much earlier when a wildfire takes place, because some of the valuable information that they want to extract is potentially going to be lost if it’s days, weeks or months before they are able to access the scene. We obviously have a duty to make sure everyone’s kept safe but I think we need to tap into established networks and relationships whereby researchers could be brought onto the fire ground much earlier, so that they can get the quality evidence and information that they need at the time, while it’s still fresh. It means that the results and outcomes of the research are based on a much better understanding of what has actually happened, rather than trying to do it retrospectively.

Adriana: Thank you very much, Paul. Any final things you’d like to add?

Paul: I just really want to extend the offer to try to put Fire & Rescue Services, certainly the ones within this NFCC Wildfire Group, at the disposal of the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, or any other university or research group, who think they can benefit from us supporting that research. 

Find more about the National Fire Chiefs Council at www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk