UK firefighters go to Spain for wildfire training as number of blazes surges

Wildfires recorded by UK fire brigades surged in 2022 amid extreme heat and droughts, new figures show, as a growing number of fire services invest in new equipment to deal with the rising fire risk due to climate change.

Figures obtained by the Guardian under Freedom of Information Act requests show the number of wildfires recorded by fire brigades in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland more than doubled last year, reaching 23,699 in 2022, compared with 9,307 the year before.

Last summer, as temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) for the first time, damaging blazes swept across the country, burning through homes in Wennington, east London and Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Wildfires burned through crucial habitats for wildlife, such as ground-nesting birds, lizards and snakes, and destroyed forests and other ecosystems that are being restored for climate-change mitigation.

Large wildfires were once rare in the UK. When satellite monitoring started in 2006 through the EU’s Copernicus system, no large fires were recorded for five years until 2011. Since then, 599 large wildfires have been recorded, burning 126,618 hectares (310,000 acres).

From Cornwall to Kent, fire services are now investing in new equipment such as off-road vehicles, drones and backpack sprayers to prepare for hotter summers, as well as equipment to help firefighters cool down while battling blazes.

The number of wildfires doubled in 2022 when compared with the previous year, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Some UK fire services are turning to countries with long histories of fighting wildfires for help, with firefighters sent to Catalonia for specialist training in how to deal with the rising risk. Brigades urged the public to take extra care with barbecues, smoking and outdoor fires during hot weather, as many wildfires are started by accident.

“Last summer we tackled some of the largest wildfires in our history,” said Matt Deadman, assistant director for operational response at Kent Fire and Rescue Service.

“We responded to grass and field fires throughout the prolonged period of hot weather. Fires like this highlight the undeniable impact of climate change,” he said.

Clouds of smoke billow across moorland
A wildfire rages on moorland in the Clwydian Range, above Llangollen in north Wales. Such fires destroy habitats for ground-nesting birds, lizards and snakes. Photograph: Getty

Bruce Farquharson, deputy assistant chief officer with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which battled the second-largest wildfire in UK history in April this year in Glenuig, Lochaber, said the brigade had invested in new training and prevention measures.

“We must adapt to meet the predicted rise in weather extremes in the years to come,” he said.

Experts said that while the number of wildfires was not necessarily the best indicator of severity, even small fires could be very damaging. In England, fire crews attended a record number of serious outdoor blazes in summer 2022, according to Home Office figures confirming the trend.

“I am concerned with heatwaves turning into ‘firewaves’,” said Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London. “London has already seen three firewaves since 2009.

“During the worst of these, on 19 July 2022, we were very lucky that it was not windy in London, and that the day ended with rain instead of more heat. I was remembering the 1666 Great Fire of London that day.”

To gather the figures, the Guardian sent a Freedom of Information Act request to UK fire services requesting data on the number of wildfires they had recorded in the past five years (2018-22) and requesting details of new equipment they had bought because of the rising wildfire risk.

Based on responses from 35 of the UK’s 52 fire services in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was found that the number of recorded wildfires had been high for the past five years, but surged during dry conditions in 2022, reaching 23,699 incidents in 2022, compared with just 9,307 the year before.

In the years before that, 12,216 were recorded in 2020; 10,730 were recorded in 2019; and 15,267 were recorded in 2018 – a year that also experienced heatwave conditions.

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Six people stand on a hill watching clouds of smoke from a fire in woodland below
People watch a large wildfire in woodland at Lickey Hills park near Birmingham in July last year, when 40C temperatures were recorded in the UK for the first time. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Of the fire services, 13 did not respond with data that could be included in the overall figures or did not record wildfires. Three did not respond and one was not contacted.

The National Fire Chiefs Council provides guidance on what counts as a wildfire, which some services followed in their responses. But others used their own definitions, meaning that smaller, naturally occurring fires were likely to be included in the figures even though they would be unlikely to be recognised as wildfires by many.

Stefan Doerr, a professor of wildland fire science at Swansea University, said blazes could start on even cool days and the public needed to be more vigilant as the UK climate changed.

“With the occurrence of long dry spells, and also summer heatwaves, increasing in the UK, the risk of a campfire, a disposable barbecue, a spark from machinery or glowing exhaust pipe causing a wildfire is also on the rise.

“Even on a cold day, dry grass, heather or bracken can easily ignite and we need to be increasingly vigilant with potential ignition sources,” he said.

“The tactics and equipment used to fight fires in buildings are not very effective for wildfires. The UK Fire and Rescue Services are responding to the increasing wildfire risk by investing in the type of training and equipment that has long been established in regions where wildfires are a regular occurrence, like the Mediterranean, California or Australia,” he said.

A line of men with firebeaters silhouetted against a fire at sundown
Firefighters try to beat out a blaze on Winter Hill near Bolton in 2018. The wildfire burned for five days. Photograph: PA /Alamy

Several conservation organisations have raised concerns about the rising wildfire risk for UK wildlife. The RSPB issued an appeal for emergency funds for its site at Corrimony, near Loch Ness, after a fire burned through half of the reserve, killing wildlife – including birds such as the endangered black grouse, greenshank and the Scottish crossbill – and destroying a 25-year project to restore the ancient Caledonian forest there.

Rob Stoneman, director of landscape recovery at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Wildfires in the UK are a very real and dangerous problem, both for nature and communities. This year we’ve witnessed tragic fires on Dartmoor, in Northumberland and in the Scottish Highlands, to name but a few, tearing through meadows, woodlands and other precious places for nature.”