Wildfires are becoming increasingly common in the UK and can cause harm and disruption to people, transport networks, rural areas and urban centres. Our insurer partner Zurich takes a closer look at how your organisation can prepare and test resilience by agreeing emergency response and contingency plans to protect people, assets and maintain operations.

Wildfires now affect the United Kingdom more frequently. Since 2012 wildfires have been included in the national risk register of events which public bodies and businesses should be preparing for. Statistics from The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) show there were 151 large wildfires of 30 hectares or more, from Loch Garve in Scotland to Dorset on the south coast.

Urban areas are affected too. In 2022 a major incident was declared across London with 10 separate wildfires in the area. Over the year more than 20,000 hectares of land was burned due to wildfires. On 19th July 2022 Fire Services had to attend more than 800 individual fires in England alone.

More recently, due to increased hot weather across the United Kingdom, Scotland suffered one of the largest wildfires, stretching more than a mile long in Daviot in the Highlands. This fire followed one near Cannich that lasted four days after breaking out in May 2023.

Wildfires require an effective response from emergency services, public authorities and businesses. They are clearly a danger to people and wildlife but can also cause disruption to transport networks, infrastructure, supply chains and buildings in places close to the fires.

What is a wildfire?

A wildfire is defined as “an unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fire which may be started maliciously, accidently, or through natural means, that negatively influences social, economic, or environmental values”. In contrast, the landscape fires that we are more accustomed to are an integral part of our world, critical to the healthy functioning of many ecosystems and an important cultural and land management tool. Whether caused by humans or nature, when fires burn out of control, they can become wildfires. Types of wildfires in the United Kingdom include:

  • Lowland heath fires are often found across the health land of southern England.
  • Upland moor fire such as Saddleworth Moor fire in the north of England and also peatland fires.
  • Grassland fires and arable crop fires.
  • Forest fires are not a common occurrence in the United Kingdom however there was a forest fire in Swinley Forest which blazed out of control and destroyed 165 hectares of forest.

Wildfires and Climate Change

Information from the latest UK Climate Risk Assessment and a report from Exeter University in 2021, suggest that changes in the UK Wildfire activity may be explained by a combination of fuel, weather and ignitions. Climate change influences all three factors through longer drier periods, warmer air, increasingly strong winds and deforestation.

Rising temperatures as a result of climate change can cause a heavy accumulation of “fuel” such as dry grass which effectively becomes tinder. With winds travelling in from the East, this creates the perfect conditions for wildfires which decimate forests and threaten local communities.

In a recent report predicting an increase in wildfires across the globe, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predict a 14% increase in wildfires by 2030 and 40% by 2050, with the biggest increases expected in areas such as central Europe and even the Arctic.

The Met Office predicts that extreme heat recently seen in the UK will last longer and become more intense due to climate change. Increases in heatwaves will result in more severe and longer droughts. This cycle of extreme and long-lasting heat caused by climate change will result in drought and more moisture being drawn from the ground and vegetation. These dry conditions will result in increased wildfire events.

How can we increase resilience to wildfires?

Organisational resilience requires anticipation, adaptation, preparation and responding to significant risks. Resilience to wildfires starts with understanding the nature of the hazard, your organisation’s exposure and the effectiveness of controls you already in place. Wildfire is one of many natural hazard and climate risks you need to prepare for. We suggest:

  • An exposure analysis to understand natural hazard and future climate risk scenarios your organisation could face. This should identify which locations are most at risk from wildfire or other climate hazards. It could also include the sites of critical partners and suppliers.
  • A site assessment of vulnerabilities and controls in relation to natural hazards and climate change at individual sites or locations. This will help assess the overall level of risk at site or location level and the effectiveness of controls already in place. Your organisation can then chose controls to adapt or prepare for the climate risk scenarios each site is exposed to.
  • Prepare and test your resilience by agreeing emergency response and contingency plans to protect people, assets and maintain operations.