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Wildfire officially recognised as a major UK hazard

Prior to 2012 wildfire was barely recognised as a significant hazard in the UK. Research supported its inclusion in the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies; our studies have also helped the Peak District National Park to develop better fire prevention strategies.

Severe wildfire has now been added to the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies

Wild fire with '55 million' overlaid in white text.
The annual cost of fighting wildfires in the UK is £55 million. Image courtesy of Andy Elliot.

Although the Fire and Rescue Service deals with about 70,000 grassland fires a year in the UK, their potential to cause serious damage, disruption and loss of life had rarely been studied in detail.

Working in collaboration with the Peak District National Park, which experiences at least one potentially serious wildfire every year, our researchers developed wildfire risk assessment methodologies and a forecasting tool. Their latest project is with the Forestry Commission, scoping a GIS-based wildfire threat analysis system for Swinley Forest, Berkshire, where a major forest fire occurred in spring 2011.

At the national level, our researchers ran a seminar series which kick-started knowledge exchange between academics, fire managers and policy-makers and set the agenda for wildfire research in the UK. An influential policy brief from the series, organised by lead researcher Julia McMorrow, provided the Cabinet Office with evidence to add ‘Severe wildfires’ to the National Risk Assessment framework and the National Register of Civil Emergencies. Jonathan Aylen provided evidence on the economic costing of wildfire impacts. DEFRA has also included wildfire in its National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

Key benefits

  • Wildfire risk maps for the Peak District and a forecasting model highlighting where and when fires are most likely to occur
  • Incorporation into the Park ranger early wildfire warning system has averted as many as five large moorland fires. These would have cost up to £5 million to fight and could have threatened more than £16 million in recent peatland restoration work
  • Improved wildfire logging system, with cross referencing to Fire and Rescue Service records 
  • A national ‘community of practice’ on wildfire. A series of seminars, and Julia McMorrow’s on-going knowledge exchange and action research, built social capital which helped the England and Wales Wildfire Forum become the key ‘go-to’ evidence-based body upon which the Government relies at times of high fire risk. This created critical mass from which further co-produced research projects on UK wildfire have developed
  • Creation of an educational and interactive computer exhibit for the Peak District Visitor Centre in Edale, to improve the public awareness of moorland wildfire
  • A change of national policy: for the first time, ‘Severe wildfire’ was included in the Government’s National Risk Register 2013

Our research

Helicopter and crew (inset) and wild fire
Helicopters are used to drop water on moorland fires from suspended buckets. Inset image courtesy of Julia McMorrow.

Our researchers have continued to work with the Peak District National Park’s ‘Fire Operations Group’, including fire officers, park rangers and other stakeholder groups, to understand when and where moorland wildfires typically occur. They continue to influence the Government’s agenda on wildfire. As a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Julia McMorrow works closely with the England and Wales Wildfire Forum, and serves on DEFRA, Department for Communities and Local Government and other fire sector committees.

Key findings

Wild fire with the number 5 in white text overlaid.
Five large wildfires have already been averted by new Peak District wildfire warning system. Inset image courtesy of Rob Gazzard.

New ways to identify the popularity of footpaths (as fires are more likely to occur close to areas popular with walkers)

Risk management will be important in the future as the potential for wildfire increases (including the need for fire risk maps, highlighting areas which would benefit from fire patrols and new ponds for firefighting)

Protocols for better recording the occurrence and geo-location of wildfires

A wildfire forecasting model, giving the probability of a sustained ignition, based on temperature and rainfall data alongside visitor activity (e.g. weekends, school holidays etc.)

Key people

Further information