Understanding the likelihood and impact of UK wildfires

Internal description

Research Council Grant [RCG]


Wildfires have traditionally been perceived as a threat confined to regions such as Southern Europe or Australia. However, the global wildfire threat is expanding and recognition of wildfire hazard in the UK has grown substantially in recent years. In the eight financial years between April 2009 and March 2017 over 250,000 wildfire incidents were dealt with by the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in England alone. Individual events have been spatially extensive, challenging to fight (e.g. Saddleworth Moor, 2018), and have threatened property, transport and other infrastructure, especially in the rural-urban interface (e.g. Swinley Forest, April/May 2011). Response costs alone for vegetation fires in Great Britain have been estimated at £55 million per year, with individual large scale events costing up to £1 million. In response to significant fire seasons (e.g. 2003 & 2011), 'severe wildfire' has been included on the National Risk Register and two cross-sector national Wildfire Forums have been established (England and Wales; Scotland (with Northern Ireland)). These initiatives evidence the need for appropriate fundamental scientific understanding and systems to manage and mitigate the current and future UK wildfire threat. The recent Climate Change Risk Assessment has also highlighted the increased risk of wildfires. Fire danger is a description of the combination of both constant and variable factors that affect the initiation, spread, and ease of controlling a wildfire on an area. Wildfire Danger Rating Systems (WFDRS) are designed to assess the fuel and weather to provide estimates of flammability and likely fire behaviour under those conditions. These danger ratings can inform management decisions for land managers, direct resourcing plans for FRS teams, and feed into strategic planning for local and national governments. The UK does not have a WFDRS and we lack the fundamental scientific and end-user understanding to effectively predict the likelihood, behaviour and impact of wildfire incidents in the UK for present and future climate and land use scenarios. England and Wales has the Met Office Fire Severity Index system (MOFSI) operated by the Met Office based on weather forecasts only and this is solely designed to determine if open access land should be closed as defined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) during 'exceptional' fire weather. However, during the 2018 UK drought MOFSI indices did not rise sufficiently to trigger land closures in areas that suffered severe wildfires. Additionally, due to the absence of a WFDRS in the UK, the algorithms underlying MOFSI are also used to inform the Natural Hazard Partnership Daily Hazard Assessment. The insensitivity to recent extreme fire conditions of 2018 are indicative of its inability to properly forewarn government, responders and land owners. We therefore need a bespoke WFDRS for the UK. This project will undertake the fundamental science and analyses required for building a UK-specific WFDRS, informed by key stakeholders who will act as project partners. This must be designed for UK fuels, its complex land cover mosaics and infrastructure, and changing land use patterns and climate.
Short titleR:HDG UK wildfires
Effective start/end date1/01/2031/12/23