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UK Wildfire Trends

August 17, 2021
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By Paul Homewood

 

As everybody knows, wildfires are getting worse. After all it’s obvious, innit? Heatwaves, droughts and all that.

Well that’s what we’re told, but what are the facts as far as the UK is concerned?

 

The Committee on Climate Change included these two graphs in their report on the indicators of climate-related risks two months ago:

 

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https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/research-to-review-and-update-indicators-of-climate-related-risks-and-actions-in-england-adas/

It is a bit of a mixed bag, but the second chart appears to back up claims that things are getting much worse. We can see on both graphs that the vast majority of fire acreage is on moorland rather than forestry. This is not surprising as the moorland areas tend to be much greater and have the added factor of peat bogs, which are very difficult to put out.

The CCC also point out that the second set is not as robust as the Forestry Commission data. Also the second chart is for the whole of the UK, whereas the first is just for England.

The overall impression though is that wildfires are a minor issue in the vast majority of years.

If we look at woodlands only, there is no trend at all, merely an outlier in 2010. The data period is unfortunately short because the Forestry Commission previously only collected data for the UK as a whole, and then only for a handful of years.

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https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/forestry-commission-england-wildfire-statistics-for-england-2009-10-to-2016-17

 

The problem clearly centres around moorland fires. Here we see the impact of the hot summer of 2018 and the dry spring in the following year. It is easy to see how fire fighters can say they have never seen anything like it, because fire years like those are rare. But are they the result of climate change?

Let’s first look at spring, often a time for wildfires as the vegetation is still dry from winter. Spring 2019 saw the massive fires in Morayshire and Sutherland, but rainfall was actually above average then. More importantly, there is no trend towards drier springs:

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In the summer of 2018, we had the Saddleworth Moor fire. But again the summer was far from being the driest on record, and summers also appear to be getting wetter rather than drier.

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Every fire needs a spark, and there is abundant evidence that most fires are caused by humans, accidental or otherwise. With the public nowadays having unprecedented access to the moors, we are going to see many more fires like these, climate change or not.

12 Comments
  1. Julian Smith permalink
    August 17, 2021 4:09 pm

    There will be more uncontrolled fires on heather moorland because some moorland managers no longer burn the heather in a controlled way. This leads to a large build up of combustible material which then burns very hot in an uncontrolled way when lit by lightning or (more likely) careless people. These hot fires can then set fire to the peat under the heather and be very difficult to extinguish.

  2. Gerry, England permalink
    August 17, 2021 5:26 pm

    In broadleaf woodland the chances of a fire are remote unless there is bracken growing to provide the fuel. In a managed woodland bracken is undesirable as it chokes off natural regen so would likely be bashed back or sprayed.

  3. Ray Sanders permalink
    August 17, 2021 5:34 pm

    “It is easy to see how fire fighters can say they have never seen anything like it, ”
    Indeed it is given the difficult entry requirements for firemen who have been for quite some time now mostly are graduates over 21 minimum at entry. And of course from their pension scheme website
    “The Normal Pension Age in the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme is 55, although firefighters are eligible to retire from age 50 with 25 or more years’ service.”
    So in reality most firefighters are only in the service for 25 years at most and many much less.
    No criticism of firefighters but their “long term” experience view is certainly not that long term with regard to climate trends is it?

  4. MrGrimNasty permalink
    August 17, 2021 5:49 pm

    Moorland fire figures have been totally skewed in the most recent years by one or two massive blazes set maliciously and by the proliferation of the sales of instant silver foil tray BBQs.

    https://www.thebmc.co.uk/disposable-bbq-moorland-ban-no-moor-bbq

  5. jimiam permalink
    August 17, 2021 6:51 pm

    “It is easy to see how fire fighters can say they have never seen anything like it, because fire years like those are rare. But are they the result of climate change?”
    No, it isn’t climate, it’s just weather. When I was at school 60 odd years ago I learned that the uk has a temperate maritime climate. It is still the same as far i I can see, our climate has not changed. We do not have Monsoons, Typhoons, a Tornado Alley, massive Hurricanes every year, a dangerous and regular fire season or yearly huge snowfalls, etc, etc.
    As far as I can tell the worlds climate has not changed either. When we get India’s climate and they get ours I would have to agree the climate has changed.

    To see climates of the world :- https://www.weatheronline.co.uk/reports/climate/

  6. Mack permalink
    August 17, 2021 10:11 pm

    I look forward to seeing Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularly releasing their records of suspected countryside arsons in recent years. A cynic might suspect that ‘non natural’ firestarting in the U.K. might bear a closer relationship to media inspired climate change wildfire hysteria than errant weather. Just as it has, very recently, across the Med and in the States.

  7. It doesn't add up... permalink
    August 18, 2021 12:58 am

    There have been a number of straw field fires during the harvest this year around me. Not much comment as to causes – the quality of local reporting is dire these days. I doubt the weather has been instrumental though. Doubtless there will be insurance claims.

  8. Phoenix44 permalink
    August 18, 2021 7:33 am

    What’s obvious from that graph is that the cause is NOT climate change. 2015, 16 and 17 are relatively small and reasonably consistent but 2019 is over 10 times greater than 2016. There is simply no way such a massive increase can be caused by the virtually unmeasurable change in climate between 2016 and 2019. It is quite absurd and utterly unscientific to claim it is caused by climate change. There is no trend in that data. Indeed claiming a trend from such a short data set with a data point that appears to be a massive outlier is ridiculous. This really is becoming so wholly stupid. Lots of these so-called trends will collapse in the next few years because so few are actually trends grounded in actual change.

  9. Adam Gallon permalink
    August 18, 2021 8:48 am

    The 2018 Winter Hill fire, was a case of arson. The Saddleworth Moor fire, also was.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-44713651

  10. cookers52 permalink
    August 18, 2021 10:10 am

    The acreage burnt before stubble and straw burning was banned was huge.

    In the UK there is no such thing as a wildfire because nowhere is wild. What we have in UK is burning of managed land, it is the management that is wrong.

    Woodland Trusts leave piles of offcuts around.

  11. dearieme permalink
    August 18, 2021 10:39 am

    On the first figure the colours are cunningly chosen to defeat my old eyes. Anyway, if the figure claims any substantial burning of broadleaf woodland I utter a mocking laugh. The bloody stuff won’t burn, not with our tree varieties and our weather.

    In the famously warm, dry summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe made concerted efforts to burn our woods without success. They should have aimed at conifer plantations.

  12. August 22, 2021 1:08 pm

    Slightly o/t, on GF last week a poster posted the links to the cause of fires in Europe. It included the confession of a fourteen year old Greek boy who confessed to starting thirteen I think it was, fires. Up here in Lancashire, it’s pretty well understood that the fires are started deliberately. A number of years ago, nine part time firemen working out of Horwich, near Winter Hill, were done for starting fires, in order to literally, ‘cash in’.

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