London's burning? UK seeks to snuff out rising wildfire threat

A fire burns during a heatwave, in Rainham, east London, Britain, July 19, 2022

A fire burns during a heatwave, in Rainham, east London, Britain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Tony O'brien

What’s the context?

Extreme heat is not just fuelling wildfires in Canada and southern Europe but raising the risk in nations like Britain and Sweden

  • London reviewing wildfire vulnerability after 2022 fires
  • Wildfire risk seen in new regions like northern Europe
  • Experts say Britain's fire service is overstretched

LONDON - While record wildfires rage in Canada and southern European hotspots such as Spain brace for the worst, a rather unexpected location is also preparing for the ever-growing threat: London.

Britain's capital was rocked last July when hundreds of fires broke out on a single day following record temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) - in what London's fire service called its busiest day since the Second World War.

There were no deaths but more than 40 houses and shops were destroyed in different parts of London after the heat created the conditions for several major grass fires that spread to nearby buildings.

A welcome sign points participants to the first citizen’s assembly on air quality held in the London borough of Wandsworth, February 25, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering
Go DeeperCan citizens play a part in cleaning London's air? I gave it a go
A fire fighting helicopter works to contain a wildfire in Leiria, Portugal
Go DeeperPortugal fights wildfires with new tactics as heatwaves raise risk
A general view shows damage in the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Go DeeperHow can we prevent wildfire disasters?

Thomas Smith, a wildfires expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), said the fires last year represented a "significant shift" in wildfire risk for Britain.

"That was a shock," the environmental scientist said at an event on wildfires and heatwaves in London at the university this week. "It was the first time people had lost their property, their homes, in the UK - as far as we are aware."

As planet-heating emissions increase global temperatures, wildfires are becoming more severe in places like southern Europe and Canada - where this year's wildfire season is the worst on record, burning 76,000 square kilometres (29,000 square miles).

But the threat is starting to spread to new areas including northern Europe, where traditionally cooler and wetter climates are giving way to hotter and drier summers.

Britain is currently experiencing its hottest June on record, while authorities in Sweden and Norway are warning of heightened risks of forest fires due to drier-than-usual soils.

England and Wales saw the number of recorded wildfires increase fourfold last year - to 983 from 247 in 2021 - according to data from the National Fire Chiefs Council.

Earlier this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a review of how the city can better prepare for climate-related threats including heatwaves, flooding and wildfires.

Analysts and officials say London is beginning to analyse how to improve its resilience to wildfires - from green spaces such as parks to buildings - yet there are concerns about the fire service's capacity to respond to the risk.

Over the last decade, the number of firefighters in England has decreased by 21% - to about 31,060 - government data shows.

The London Fire Brigade is "overstretched and honestly underfunded" to meet the "incredible demand" that climate-induced wildfires could cause, according to Smith of the LSE.

"I think we're still playing catch up," Smith said.

Wildfire, drought and floods risks menace London

In terms of size, wildfires in London pale in comparison to those in hotspots like Canada, or even in remote parts of Scotland which have experienced wildfires in recent weeks.

But a major concern for fire experts - and local officials - is how these fires broke out and spread where urban streets back onto rural areas or city parks, threatening people and property.

Of the 40-odd properties that were destroyed by the fires in London last July, about half were located in Wennington, a small village in the east of the capital.

The official fire report is yet to be released, but residents say the wildfire in the village started when a pile of grass cuttings in someone's garden caught alight.

Although the local fire station was nearby, its firefighters had been called away to another blaze just a few miles away - meaning that the fire quickly spread unchecked along dry grass, fences and trees.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life, and I hope I never ever see anything like it again," Ray Morgon, leader of the local Havering Council, said in an interview.

"It was really quite heartbreaking," he added. "Imagine your whole life's possessions just gone up in smoke."

Morgon said the council has since done a risk assessment on parks and open areas, ensuring urban meadows are further away from properties and cutting long grass that is too close.

Yet wildfires are not the only climate-related risk worrying the council, with flooding usually regarded as the main problem.

The changing climate is increasing the risk of drought and wildfires in the summer, as well as the threat of more rain and flooding in the winter.

By 2070, Britain's Met Office expects summers to be between 1C and 6C warmer and up to 60% drier, and winters to be between 1C and 4.5C hotter and up to 30% wetter.

"We do realise that the weather is changing - we are likely to get more extremes," Morgon said. "We've got to make ourselves more resilient going forward."

Wildfire lessons from Spain and the United States

The Forestry Commission is working to implement best practices from places like Australia and the U.S. to make Britain's urban areas more wildfire-resistant - although this work is in its early stages - said Rob Gazzard, a wildfire advisor for the body.

Gazzard gave the example of U.S. fire standards that call for 100 feet (30 metres) of space between properties and wild areas where vegetation is carefully managed, from ensuring sufficient distance between trees to removing dead plants.

Some British firefighters are also benefitting from overseas inspiration by receiving training in Spain and South Africa on wildfire management techniques, such as raking vegetation to create a firebreak, according to Smith of the LSE.

Certain rural parts of Britain - like the Peak District National Park - have created wildfire management plans involving landowners and community members, while the nation now has more expertise and equipment to fight wildfires, he added.

Analysts also point to the importance of community awareness campaigns to reduce accidental fires, such as restricting the use of barbecues and clearing gutters of leaves.

The Greater London Authority (GLA), meanwhile, is reviewing its policies which require major city developments to include green roofs and walls where feasible - panels of vegetation which help cool cities and absorb rains - said Abby Crisostomo, its head of green infrastructure.

The GLA recognises the benefits of creating greener urban areas while being sensitive to the risks of wildfires, especially after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people due to its external flammable cladding, Crisostomo said.

Green walls are considered to be very resistant to ignition when maintained, the UK government has said, but might raise the risk of fire if allowed to dry out - such as in a drought.

"It's a very, very live issue at the moment," Crisostomo said at the LSE event. "There aren't easy answers."

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling)

Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

A firefighter tries to extinguish a wildfire burning at the industrial zone of the city of Volos in central Greece, July 26, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

Part of:

Wildfires in a warming world

From Greek holiday islands to Canada's temperate forests, wildfires are intensifying as climate change fuels rising temperatures

Updated: August 03, 2023


  • Extreme weather
  • Forests
  • Climate solutions

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context