Plant aspen trees, avoid eucalyptus, and have a word with your lazy neighbour if you want to protect your property against wildfires, gardeners have been warned, as the UK faces an increasing risk of blazes from global heating.
This year has already been the worst for wildfires in the country in the last decade, perhaps longer, and comes on top of a significant rise in the number and extent of fires during last summer’s record-breaking drought and heatwave.
So far this year, there have been 134 wildfires in the UK, burning more than 29,000ha of land. This is substantially more than the 18,000ha burned in 79 incidents in 2018, when blazes on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester and Winter Hill in Lancashire, as well as dozens of smaller fires across the country, caused devastation.
Few people in the UK are at risk of being caught up in a wildfire; those at the greatest risk are people living near the edges of moors, grassland, heathland and some types of forest. In the worst recent incident in Britain or Ireland two houses burn down in Ulster, County Donegal.
However, the risk can be reduced by taking some simple measures. For instance, property owners are advised to ensure that any nearby trees do not overhang buildings, to clean their gutters regularly to prevent the build up of dry leaves and other flammable material, and to take care of their vegetation.
Aspen is a species that is notably resistant to fire, and is sometimes used to create firebreaks, while eucalyptus trees are notoriously flammable. Property owners in the US, Australia and other areas prone to wildfires are often advised to leave spaces clear of trees for about 30 metres (100ft) around their houses, but in the UK ensuring that dead and dried vegetation is regularly cleared is likely to be enough.
People who fail to look after their properties and allow gardens to become overgrown are a fire hazard to their neighbours, experts warned on Friday, and any sensible fire strategy must cover whole neighbourhoods.
“It’s like vaccination,” explained Cathelijne Stoof, an assistant professor of soil geography and landscape at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “You have to have a certain number of people vaccinated for it to work. If a small proportion of the population do not do it, it is to the detriment of the rest.”
Portable barbecues were described as a “perfect ignition source” by Guillermo Rein, a professor of fire science at Imperial College London. One possible alternative was for councils to build communal barbecues which people could share safely in summer, instead of using their own dangerous sources of fire.
Wildfires tend to be associated with hot summers, but spring is also a dangerous time as trees and plants are still not in the growing stage and hot, dry conditions can create a hazard. The hottest winter day on record was experienced on 26 February this year, when temperatures topped 21C, Saddleworth Moor again sprang into flames, and there were fires in Edinburgh, Salisbury and elsewhere. Much of the increase in wildfires this year has been the result of a single large fire near Moray in the north of Scotland, which has raised relatively little concern as few people live or farm nearby.
Vegetation across much of the country is still vulnerable because of last year’s drought, but recent rain over many areas has dampened the immediate risk. In the longer term, however, the UK was likely to be in for more wildfires because of the climate crisis, experts said.
“The UK does not have the right ecosystems [for large wildfires as seen in regions such as California and Australia] and we do not have the same continuous wilderness – we have fires, but there are natural breaks in the landscape,” said Rory Hadden, a senior lecturer in fire investigation at Edinburgh University. “But we will probably see more fires and they may be slightly more intense.”
Thomas Smith, an assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics, said: “Climate change is increasing the abundance of fuel and the likelihood of ignitions.” . Of the last 11 years, only 2011 showed a similar pattern as the last two years, with 44 fires burning 17,000ha.
Smith said judging the number and extent of UK wildfires is hard, because a clear and consistent satellite record is only available for the last decade, and previous records were patchy and inconsistent. In four of the years since 2008, there had been no fires big or intense enough to appear on the satellite record.
The experts agreed that human actions were a key cause of fires, through careless or deliberate behaviour, such as using barbecues dangerously or tossing away cigarettes in dry conditions. They said there was much more to do in educating people against such behaviour.
Wildfires can cause sudden spikes in air pollution from particulate matter, presenting a serious health hazard many miles away from the fires.