Monday, 16 November 2015

UK Wildfire Conference: 10-11 November

I represented the Moorland Forum at the UK Wildfire Conference, last week.  This conference was the latest in a series of UK conferences that started in 2003.  Previously, the conferences had been organised by an independent company, but this year the decision was taken that the Scottish Wildfire Forum should team up with the England & Wales Wildfire Forum and the Chief Fire Officers' Association Wildfire Group to run the conference.  The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service agreed to host the conference at their state-of-the-art conference centre at Cambuslang, south-east of Glasgow, and it proved to be a fantastic venue.

After a slow start, the number of bookings increased to just short of 180 and it was great that this included people from Sweden, the Netherlands, USA and New Zealand.  The international audience justified the presence of the key-note international speakers from USA, New Zealand and Italy, who shared their considerable wildfire experience with the conference.  The level of preparedness for wildfire in the UK is low compared to other countries, but then so is our threat level.  Arguably, the threat level is too low; if it were higher, we would be forced to get more organised but it is difficult to justify this when we only have a bad wildfire season every few years, which is unlikely to affect every part of the UK.  During discussion at the conference, the comparison was made with snow clearance; if we had regular, predictable heavy falls of snow, we would be prepared to invest more heavily in snow clearing equipment.  However, just because our wildfire threat level is low does not mean there is no risk to people and property and that we should not be planning ahead.  This was the theme for the conference: "Prevention Better Than Cure".

I am the Vice Chairman of the England & Wales Wildfire forum, and also on the Executive Committee of the Scottish Wildfire Forum, and in this dual capacity I was asked to provide an introduction to the conference, to help set the scene.

On the second day, I ran a workshop about the proposal to introduce a Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS) for the UK.  The starting point for this is that the two wildfire forums and the Chief Fire Officers' Association Wildfire Group, should come together to draw up a specification for what is required; jointly, these organisations should be the customer.  As part of developing a specification, all existing systems will be reviewed, as well as the option to develop a bespoke system for the UK.  Any costs will need to be justified.  Experience of introducing a better co-ordinated response to wildfire in the Peak District has indicated that there will be cost savings, but it will no doubt be difficult to obtain any funding for this work.  However, the first step is to quantify what the industry wants a FDRS to achieve and then provide different options, with associated costs for how this might be achieved.

Wildfire is often seen as a poor relation when considering the management of our open land, but with forecasters indicating that climate change is likely to result in hotter and drier summers, I believe it is essential that we become better prepared for wildfire incidents so that we can reduce their impact.  The worst case scenario is a summer wildfire burning into peat - not only will this result in severe damage to vegetation, it will cause an enormous loss of stored carbon.

Wildfires are a potential environmental disaster; we must do everything we can to reduce the amount of damage they cause.

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