POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Climate Change and UK Wildfire

Published Thursday, June 27, 2019

Wildfire is any uncontrolled vegetation fire that requires a decision, or action, to suppress it. This POSTnote summarises management of wildfires in the UK, how projected climate changes may affect UK wildfire behaviour, and the environmental, economic, and health impacts of this. It also outlines policy options for increasing the UK’s resilience to wildfires.

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Fire is natural and essential process in some global ecosystems. Fire regimes are defined by their intensity (energy output from the fire), severity (organic matter consumption), frequency, seasonality, and size of wildfires in an area. These regimes change through time according to atmospheric conditions, climate, and vegetation. Weather is a key factor in determining whether wildfire risk is elevated or not. Between 2009 and 2017, the Forestry Commission classified 285,867 events that the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) attended in the UK as wildfires. Satellites recorded an area burnt of over 180km2 in 2018, and already over 290km2 so far in 2019. Significant wildfires do occur in the UK and even small wildfires can have major impacts since location is key. UK climate projections indicate more climatic factors conducive to wildfire (heat, lack of moisture and wind) but there is a lack of recorded evidence on the environmental, economic and health impacts of wildfire events. 

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Wildfire is a natural and essential part of some ecosystems.
  • Recently, there has been a global surge of large wildfires and prolonged fire seasons, associated with a complex mix of climate change, changing land management practices and human behaviour.
  • UK climate projections indicate that climatic factors conducive to elevated wildfire conditions will increase.
  • The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment and National Adaptation Programme identified wildfire as a climate change risk.
  • The Home Office has responsibility for wildfire risk and focuses on extinguishing fires with other management responsibilities split between government departments.

 

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Professor Joseph Holden, University of Leeds*

Professor David Bowman, University of Tasmania*

Dr Pat Thompson, RSPB*

Dr Gareth Clay, University of Manchester*

Professor Andrew Scott, Royal Holloway, University of London*

Rob Gazzard, Forestry Commission England*

Julia McMorrow, University of Manchester*

Alistair Crowle, Natural England*

Sam Ashby, Home Office*

Professor Andy Moffat, Forest Research*

Dr Rory Hadden, University of Edinburgh

Professor Camille S. Stevens-Rumann, University of Idaho

Professor Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London

Dr Thomas Smith, London School of Economics and Political Science

Dr Cathelijne Stoof, Wageningen University

Professor Claire Belcher, University of Exeter

Dr Nicholas Walding, University of Exeter

Marc Castellnou, Pau Costa Foundation

Professor Matt Davies, Ohio State University

Lucian Deaton, National Fire Protection Association

Michelle Steinberg, National Fire Protection Association

Dr Will Morton, Public Health England

David Middleton, Defra

Professor Richard Betts, MET Office

Ian Lisk, Met Office*

Chris Pope, Natural England*

Julian Hilditch, Home Office*

Bob Speel, Home Office*

Steve Bray, Ministry of Defence

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

 

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.