Tackling the deadly challenge: Wildfires continue to break records around the world
The 2022 wildfire season is once again proving to be exceptional. From Siberia to Australia, Dorset to Loch Lomond, the fires are more frequent, fiercer, hotter and typically linked to increasingly long periods of dry weather exacerbated by climate change.
In the US, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometres) have burned so far this year – the most by mid-May since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.
In the UK, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service cited ‘unseasonably warm weather’ for its first amber wildfire alert of 2022 in March.1
Around the world wildfires are taking hold like never before, putting communities, lives, vital infrastructure, buildings, livelihoods, the environment, air quality and the lives of firefighters at risk. It is a major challenge for our members on the frontline around the world.
Published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in February, the report Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires2 predicts that even if greenhouse gases are reduced, there is projected to be a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century.
Met Office climate scientist and contributing author to the UNEP report, Dr Chantelle Burton, said: “We are already seeing the impact of climate change on weather patterns all over the world, and this is disrupting normal fire regimes in many regions. It is important for fire research to explore what is changing, what effect this could have on people and the environment, and what communities need to do to prepare.”
As a global organisation, the IFE is leading a number of initiatives to enable learning and sharing of best practice as well as collaborations with a wider network of expertise to help shape how the profession adapts to the changing nature of wildfires.
Wildfires have been part of our story for decades, but now they are moving from seasonal to all year round, exhausting the people and resources needed to deal with them and limiting the time available to deploy preventative strategies.
Around the world, each incident presents different challenges, dependent on the resilience of the transport and communications infrastructure, water access, availability of skilled personnel, wider resource constraints and the risk landscape within which they operate.
Our South Africa branch recently hosted a two-day online seminar dedicated to the theme of preventing natural and man-made disasters, when our International President Andrew Sharrad warned that natural disasters are changing and are expected to become more complex, unpredictable and difficult to manage. The extent of damage depends not only on the intensity of the disaster itself but also where people choose to live, how they build their homes, how land is managed and how well communities are prepared, supported and cared for during and after disasters.
For fire engineering, the challenge is to keep pace with that change. As human behaviours account for as much as 85 per cent of the 50 per cent of wildfires where we do know the cause, our work leading the People Pillar of the Decade of Action on Fire Safety as well as the activities of our new Human Factors special interest group will look for ways to curb careless or deliberate behaviours that trigger such fires.
In the UK, Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has provided in-depth insight into what was learned from the 41-day long Winter Hill wildfire incident in Lancashire as part of the IFE’s CPD programme. The fire not only put local farms, communities and crews at risk but also telecommunications masts sited in the area, which resulted in a major incident being declared. The session looks at how the service used the National Fire Reporting Tool and mobilised further techniques, technology and tactics to deal with the fire, which put unprecedented demand on resources. It also looks at how the service prioritised the needs of diverse stakeholders, used insight gained from other incidents around the world and noted the urgent need for practice to continue to adapt to the increased risk landscape being caused by climate change.
Our Chair, Mark Chubb, has put together a group of experts drawn from our global membership that will have a specific focus on leveraging knowledge and insight to support the need to evolve how fire engineers meet the challenge of wildfires in the future. The aim will be to capture and share knowledge and best practice as we continue to upskill fire engineers to support them in their mission to adapt to the rapidly evolving nature of wildfires.
He explains some of the complexities involved: “Designing buildings to reduce vulnerability to wildfire hazards requires careful consideration of materials and methods of construction. Burning brands and high radiant heat fluxes on the exterior envelope of a building make many materials and combinations of materials unsuitable for use in or near wildfire-prone areas. Similarly, designs that incorporate exterior elements, such as decks, canopies, and eaves, under which fire can spread will expose otherwise fire-resistant exterior construction to hidden hazards if fires can enter the building’s concealed spaces.
“The siting of buildings with respect to access and escape routes is also important. Just as counterflows in stairways can impede firefighter access or occupant evacuation in buildings, long, narrow, steep, or dead-end streets can obstruct vehicles making it difficult for residents to flee and firefighters to protect exposed buildings.
“Firefighting water supplies in areas in or near wildfire prone areas often lack the capacity available in other developed areas. Firefighters must often rely upon ponds, rivers, streams, irrigation canals, tanks, or cisterns to supply firefighting appliances.
“The use of water additives to increase the firefighting effectiveness and exposure protection operations has become increasingly common in wildland-urban fire interface and intermix areas. However, many of the new biodegradable water additives require special equipment or have limitations firefighters must appreciate before use.
“Beyond this, fire services have found it increasingly necessary to manage public expectations of fire response operations in wildland-urban interface and intermix areas. Many of the hazards presented by these developments cannot be easily reversed. As dangers increase due to climate change, residents of these areas will confront difficult decisions whether to stay of go when conditions are ripe to conflagrations.
“Previously, many fire services advised residents to flee their homes and take refuge outside fire-prone areas when conditions became conducive to sudden fire starts and rapid fire growth. Today, the number of places available to take refuge are shrinking as the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires increases in many parts of the world. Residents who couldn’t flee before a fire started nearby were encouraged to stay put and prepare to protect their homes themselves. This guidance requires reconsideration in light of recent wildfires that indicate even well-prepared and protected buildings remain vulnerable to all but the very best fire defences.”
As a profession, we must share new and emerging technology, best practices, lessons learned and resources if we are to make a real difference. New technology is already having an impact. Specialist software used to model the changing behaviour of wildfires can complement the hard experience of frontline crews to enable better response planning, ensuring available equipment and resources are deployed to maximum effect. Tools like these may become essential to inform fire service stay-or-go advice and public warnings.
Beyond the work of those tackling fires, fire engineers around the world are innovating, looking at suppression systems, fire resistant building materials and advancing equipment and modelling tools.
With so much still to learn about wildfires and how to deal with them we will be maximising opportunities for our international community to share knowledge and best practice to meet this growing and deadly challenge.
For further information on the IFE’s activities and training resources related to wildfires get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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