Monday, 25 February 2019

Guest Blog: Wildfire, Bruce Farquharson

Following last year’s dry summer and consequently “bad” wildfire season, Bruce Farquharson, Area Commander – Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum gives us his thoughts on wildfire and how we manage it in Scotland.  It is a topic we at The Heather Trust believe will increase in importance if climate change predictions are correct and it is an issue we will need to factor more definitely and consciously into our use and management of land. 

Wildfire. A word that has the ability to send a shudder through land managers and firefighters alike.
Picture Credit – The
I have had a relationship with wildfires for a number of years now, both as the Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum and as the Strategic Lead for Wildfire in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. The position I have allows me the unique opportunity to work with a wide range of Stakeholders to reduce the number and severity of wildfires. It also ensures that the response the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has to incidents of this type is the very best it can be and incorporates the most up to date practices and equipment from across the world.

The prevention of wildfires and the response to them when they happen can’t be achieved by a single agency alone. It will only be effective when all stakeholders have a common understanding of the many issues that contribute to the problem of wildfires. To that end the Scottish Wildfire Forum has a strategy which combines three main strands:
  • Prevention
  • Communication
  • Education and Training
All three of these strands have engagement and partnership at the heart of them because we firmly believe that working together is the best way of improving the situation.

Wildfires often occur in groups during the more extreme conditions. We are seeing an increase in the number of times and the number of days of the higher fire danger conditions.  Last year we issued 21 Fire Danger Warnings, the year before it was 6, and the year before that only 2. These warnings are issued when among other things the weather, fuel moisture and the rate at which fire is likely to spread reaches specific threshold values. 

When this is combined with the fact that fuel availability is increasing due to changes in land management practice, it is easy to see that the number of fires are likely to increase, and that they are likely to be of a higher intensity and cover larger areas than we have seen in the past.

In order to reduce the number of wildfires it is important to understand how they are caused. A colleague of mine is a firm advocate of the “fact” that there are 3 main causes of fire: Men, Women and Children, and while this tongue in cheek anecdote is said in jest, there is a degree of truth in it.
Changing the behaviours and thinking of people, both the public, and land managers, is likely to be a key element of reducing the number and severity of wildfires.

Safe and responsible behaviour by the public while they are enjoying the countryside is essential. The use of barbecues, camp fires and discarded smoking materials are causes of wildfires, and while a very small amount are caused deliberately, more often than not it is an accident that gives rise to a wildfire. We must provide good information to the public to educate them on the risk and how to behave responsibly.

There are many ways of achieving this; media releases, either social, broadcast or print are effective, as is education at school for children, even something as simple as clear and visible information at the areas the public accesses the countryside has a part to play, we see great examples of this from across the world, but for some reason rarely see them in the UK.

Fire has been used as an important land management tool for century’s. The skills, processes and experiences handed down from generation to generation provide land managers with the means to manage moorland in a tried and tested way. 

The popularity and effectiveness of this method of managing moorland has been recognised by the Scottish Government, who, to provide guidance and good practice, have developed the MuirburnCode, which gives a vast amount of information on how to carry out burn activities. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are equivalents in the Heather and Grass Burning Codes.

Training and qualifications now exist to support the development of these skills. There are new National Occupational Standards developed by industry and LANTRA. A variety of organisations offer heather burning training. On-line training initiatives are starting. 

However, it is important to remember that current skills and techniques, passed down through the generations, may not take into account the changes in fuel types and loads and more extreme fire behaviour that climate change is bringing.

To prepare for the wildfire season it is important to make sure that all of the equipment you might use is in good, serviceable condition, and that the people who may be called upon to use it are trained and available if required. 

A few hours preparation now will go a long way in the event of a fire.

While any response made by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is absolutely free, insurance policies are available to cover firefighting costs incurred by local teams, and the possible use of helicopters, should they be required. Helicopters can be extremely expensive, but are a great resource for dealing with serious fires.

A good communications network, for calling out help if required is important. Also having an emergency fire plan available that has procedures, resources lists and includes maps and information on access points, hard standing, and water supplies will help both the land managers and the Fire Service should the worst happen.

One really positive way to help develop the lists of local resources is by setting up a local Wildfire group.. A Wildfire Group is a local partnership between the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and land managers, including both public agencies and land managers, to tackle the increasing threat of wildfires. Membership of a Wildfire Group should include landowners, rural agencies, foresters, gamekeepers, farmers and crofters and anyone with an interest in wildfire. These groups aim to improve resilience by considering wildfire prevention and response. At a practical level, a wildfire group establishes firm lines of communication, increases wildfire awareness, can provide relevant training and provides a structure for a response to a wildfire. 

Wildfires are a recurring risk, and unfortunately the risk is increasing. We must work together to improve our understanding of the risk, how to reduce it, and have a response plan that is effective and efficient.

Bruce Farquharson
Area Commander – Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum