Wildfires… a time for change?

Wildfires… a time for change?

For those of us who work in the world of regulatory fire safety, the first thing we do with clients is look at the risk from a fire starting, reducing the risk from ignition sources such as poorly maintained electrical items, smoking and even arson prevention, the first side of the fire triangle; heat/ignition. The second thing we look at is what may be termed in the industry as ‘housekeeping’ reducing the second side of the fire triangle…. the fuel, the things that can burn. Reduce those to a functional minimum, so don’t keep 50 bales of paper next to a printing press if you only use one per day, empty your bins, clean up the wood shavings or oil spills in a workshop, you get the drift.

Once that risk, the actual risk of a fire starting (ignition source) and growing (fuel load), is reduced to as low as reasonably practicable, only then do we turn to the protective measures such as ensuring fire exits are maintained, fire detections systems are adequate and so on. There is a duty for the ‘Responsible person’ for pretty much every public and commercial building in the UK, including offices, shops, theatres, hotels, factories warehouses etc. to do this under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Unsurprisingly, there is no duty to do this in one’s own home and rightly so. The Fire Service carry out their ‘community safety’ duties very well, advising us to have an escape plan, fit smoke detectors on every level of our homes, not to overfill chip pans or overload electrical sockets. Their success in this over the past two decades has seen fires in the home reduce and consequently fire deaths in the home have fallen considerably. But I for one, as a former Firefighter and fire safety professional would take issue with a fire safety inspector telling me (before my wife does) to pick up the trainers I left on the stairs, as it is blocking my escape route or checking my ‘records’ that I’d had my smoke detector batteries changed and had carried out a six monthly fire drill with my family.

However, the awful fires across the UK this week and in particular those at Wennington and Dagenham (I live about half way between each of these areas) have demonstrated that maybe, for our own sakes we need to think beyond the overloaded plug sockets and smoke detectors and also cooperate and coordinate (another duty of the Fire Safety Order) with our neighbours whether they be residential or commercial for everyone’s benefit.

A House fire in North London in 2016 that spread from a fire that started in the garden. (Authors collection)

You’d be quite surprised at the amount of innocent fires that start in gardens. From bonfires, barbecues, an overheated plug socket in a shed, a compost heap, or some other act or omission. Even out of the summer season, London Fire Brigade’s Twitter feed will give advice on the above following a garden fire that spread into residential properties several times per year. The photograph above is one just like that I was called to in North London in May 2016, two houses were severely damaged and their roof burnt right off from an unattended garden bonfire. Bind and sheds close to the house, unwanted combustible items in close proximity, overgrown vegetation all add to this risk.

We’ve all seen reports of vast wildfires in Europe and the USA that consume entire streets villages or towns, that spectre visited us in London this week with outdoor fires burning into gardens and their contents and then into multiple houses. This is, I believe, the first time it has happened certainly in our Capital City. Grass fires in summer are nothing new, during my career, the long hot summers of 1995, 2003 and 2018 as well as the hot dry early summers of 2005, 2006 and 2013 saw me and my colleagues running from one fire to the next way out of our local area toward the outskirts of London as fields, country parks, heathland, and common’s went up in flames.

Firefighters tackle a heathland fire on Wanstead Flats, East London in July 2005 (Authors collection).

There is an elephant in the room that we need to address, that isn’t the sole point of this essay, but can’t be ignored. Up until 2014 London had 113 Fire Stations, a lot of which used to have two front line fire engines available. Over the years, due to cuts these were reduced here and there until 2014, when the most savage round of cutbacks ever seen for London’s Fire Brigade saw 10 Fire Stations closed and 27 second pumps removed.

East London, historically the busiest part of London for fires was particularly hard hit. With Kingsland Road, Bow and Silvertown Fire Stations closed (the loss of five fire engines from those three stations) and the second pump removed from, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Poplar, Plaistow, Stratford, Leytonstone, Leyton, Chingford, Woodford and Romford. (In 2005 pumps had also been taken from Bethnal Green, Millwall, Silvertown and Hornchurch). That is 17 fewer fire engines in East London that when I was based at Plaistow fire station during the busy summer of 1995 and also in the early days of my time as a senior officer in 2003. Other parts of London also saw cuts to a slightly lesser degree, all of which inevitably played its part in this years high number of very serious incidents.

You may argue that when the last hot summer that had a dramatic effect on fires in the Capital occured in 2018, it was also the case with reduced numbers as a result of the 2014 cuts. That was my last few weeks with LFB before retiring, but things were different. During the four years since I left LFB in July 2018, there has been an exodus of staff due to retirements and resignations. Austerity had led to salary stagnation, the so called ‘gold plated’ pension (which members contribute to quiet generously) has also changed and is now looking much less attractive for people considering firefighting as a career. Thus older people have retired, younger people are not staying, seeking better opportunities elsewhere and the previous stampede for recruitment is now looking more like a slow stroll.

LFB is now quite short of staff across its ranks. On a lot of occasions, many if not all of the remaining second pumps (around 40) are not available as those stations are understaffed or Firefighters from those stations are sent to the higher number of single pump stations where they are short, to ensure their only fire engine remains available. I am led to believe last Tuesday 39 of the 40 second pumps were not available. So all but one of London’s 103 station’s was running with just a single pump. 39 Fire Engines carrying at least 156 Firefighters would have made a significant difference on the day.

I am not going to get into a debate on global warming or climate change. I am not a denier by any means, but it isn’t my area of expertise. What I do know is that we went 19 years between the much celebrated summer of 1976 until 1995, which was the next record breaking prolonged summer. I do recall 1983 being hot and my first ever professional awareness of grass fires was in 1990, when having then been a Firefighter for three years, it was warm and dry enough that I attended a handful. From 1995, we only waited eight years until 2003, which saw a record breaking heatwave across Europe including the UK where 100f was reached for the first time on August 10th. By that time, I was a senior officer and I spent quite a lot of that summer attending grass, or gorse fires across London, including Wanstead Flats, Dagenham, Hornchurch, Upminster and Epping Forest.

2005 and again in 2006 the spring had been particularly dry and early summer pretty warm in the SE of England so Firefighters in the region were called upon to fight frequent wildfires. In May 2011, again due to a dry spell, Swinley Forest in Surrey suffered a major fire, that required back up from crews from places as far flung as London and Wiltshire, I was there overnight on the second day coordinating eight LFB crews drafted in to assist. In July 2013, I was attending the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on behalf of LFB, when I was paged to urgently return to London as they were running out of Senior officers due to several large grass fires depleting numbers among a handful of other serious fires in London that evening.

Swinley Forest Surrey, May 2011 (Authors collection).

So whatever your beliefs on global warming or climate change, it is indisputable the the frequency of hot dry summers in the UK is on the increase and with that the number of fires and pressures on a much smaller fire service to deal with them. This is where 2018, is much clearer in my memory and better for analysis.

Like some of those previous summers, 2018 was a reasonably dry and warm spring as I recall, after a relatively dry but cold winter, which included the ‘Beast from the East’ in late February to early March of that year. Late March onwards was quite pleasant, for some reason that I have yet to fathom, the numbers of fires overall increase when we have these warm and dry spells. As the weeks went on and the clock ticked down toward the last days of my time serving in LFB the number of fires of all origins in all types of buildings seemed to increase. These are/were not all down to heat related events like dried out timbers being ignited by an errant spark, golden grassland falling victim to a dropped cigarette or a mirror reflecting bright sunlight onto a pair of bedroom curtains. Fires just seem to increase.

But some inevitably are. It isn’t just the grass and heathland with their tinder dry contents ready to ignite from the slightest ignition source, it seems to be the general heating and drying of all sorts of material in a wide range of premises, as well as windows left open giving a greater air supply (the third side of the triangle of fire). Added to this are other microbial or chemical reactions going on in things like wood piles or compost heaps that can heat up to the point of ignition. Electrical items, especially those that are designed to keeps things cool have to work harder and as a result can overheat and start a fire.

One by one, day by day, these increase. Firefighters are called to them, the next one starts, but the Firefighters are elsewhere dealing with the first fire and that fire gets a bit bigger before Firefighters arrive from further afield so it all begins to snowball. More fires, less Firefighters available locally, the bigger they get, more Firefighters required to tackle them, more areas depleted of cover.

A large fire in a pile of shredded wood that had heated up and ignited spreading to nearby buildings, which took 100 Firefighters 3 days to extinguish. during the summer of 2005, Staples Corner, NW London (authors collection).

Summer 2018 certainly followed this pattern, I was in command of two serious high rise fires, one in Bow, one in Edmonton a week or so apart. I attended a major fire in a shop on the high road in Welling in SE London, followed a day or so later by a major warehouse fire in Leyton as the sun rose in the summer sky. A fire in the storage area of a plumbers merchants where a short circuit set fire to dried roof timbers, a serious house fire in Dagenham that burnt the roof off two houses caused by a lighting strike, a number of garden fires that had spread from grass to fence panels to sheds to grow large enough to warrant my attendance.

Then I had the biggest grass fire London had ever seen, on Sunday 15th July 2018, just eight days before I retired. I was called to a familiar address where I’d attended many heathland fires over the years. The pager spelt out the inevitable “15 pump fire, Wanstead Flats, Centre Road E.11. RVP Blake Hall Road E.11” As I arrived, the crews in attendance were desperately reversing fire engines out of Centre Road the fire had jumped the road and was moving toward houses to the West on the wind as well as spreading by radiated heat to the SE of its origin. I came across a flustered officer colleague who asked me to take the Eastern flank, gave me a couple of crews already in that general ares and asked me to get back to him with my requirements.

I ended up at the very edge of where the fire could reasonable burn, where the football pitches started and where the fire, if it did spread would be in dried grass just a few centimetres deep and much easier to extinguish. The big risk though, was a tree line with a block of flats and a petrol station behind it. I had by then 8 crews with me and as hard as it was, like Custer’s last stand, I declared we should wait for the fire to burn to us, where the gorse changed to cut grass and leave the greater number of those resources protecting the large tree line which led to the blocks of flats. Unlike Custer, we won the battle, the fire had by then increased to 40 pumps and covered an area of approximately 100 football pitches, of long grass, gorse, bushes and trees in a peaty soil which burned below the surface.

A week later on my last ever shift I attended my last ever fire, which was a grass fire at Woolwich Common in SE London. Again, an innocent small fire had spread rapidly in multiple directions threatening local wildlife as well as surrounding properties. To keep me out of trouble on my last shift, they put me in charge of logistics on the parade ground at nearby Woolwich Barracks.

The Author at the Wanstead Flats fire in July 2018. (Authors collection).

So back to the beginning, despite the long narrative of this essay, I think without a doubt we are going to see an increase in long hot summers and the increased pressures this brings to our Firefighters. Fire crews today, even in large metropolitan fire services such as London are better equipped and trained than they were a generation ago for this type of incident. But (in London Fire Brigade) we certainly don’t have the large bespoke 6×6 off road vehicles to assist us. Just this week a couple of these from Essex Fire & Rescue Service were used within London.

They, like all fire engines are incredibly expensive specialist vehicles that have limited use in day to day firefighting. But that doesn’t mean LFB could not procure regular pumps with a narrower width and an off road capability to be placed at strategic stations where they know these fire occur year in year out. In some of the more extreme rural locations, such as Dartmoor, Wales and Scotland, private helicopter contractors are retained with pilots specially trained to carry ‘Bambi buckets’, the 500/1000 litre bucket slung beneath helicopters filled with water and fire retardant, which we see used all over the world to stop the leading edge of an out of control wildfire.

I don’t think we are yet at the Boeing 747 fire tanker stage in the UK, but the Fire Service nationally (Via the NFCC) in my opinion need to lobby for this availability on a regional basis for the whole UK, such as a contract that covers Essex, London and Kent for my area, the Midlands, East Anglia, the NW and onwards. There are also a limited number of wildfire tactical advisors throughout the UK fire service, this number needs to be expanded, I am led to believe there are only three in London. Once more are trained, crews should received more detailed training that considers more proactive measures such as lighting counter fires or back fires, where crews literally fight fire with fire, lighting fires to burn in a controlled way toward the main body of fire to deny it the fuel to grow and spread further. Being equipped with chainsaws to cut fire breaks or being able to utilise agricultural machinery for the same purposes.

So what about us, the public and Local Authorities. Going back to the Fire Safety Order, we should and generally can live our lives in our homes without harassment by the state. But it wouldn’t hurt for us to consider our neighbours, whether you are the owner of a stables or car repair business that backs onto residential premises, whether your house backs onto a school field. Should we consider fire safety? I know almost everyone, myself included has a fear of crime, and where our gardens back onto open or accessible spaces, we love big thick prickly Hawthorn, Berberis, or Holly bushes to protect us from unwanted visitors, but do we consider keeping it trimmed and well watered so it doesn’t become a rapid fuel parcel spreading the adjacent grass fire to your fence, then shed and finally your house?

We also really need to consider the use of barbecues on common land. It isn’t right to deny those who don’t have gardens the right to a barbecue, but local authorities should invest in fire safe picnic/barbecue areas in parks that are regularly patrolled with closed bins for hot coals separate from general waste bins. There is also duty to ensure that green spaces are adequately maintained and the dead foliage from previous winters is not sitting there as additional fuel for the following hot dry summer.

A fire in an overgrown garden can generate great heat, drying out the foliage ahead of it and spread to fences and sheds.

In summary, my heart goes out to all of those people who have lost their whole world in the fires this week. My eternal respect goes to my former colleagues who went from fire to fire, without a break, in immense heat often forced to wear full structural firefighting kit and heavy breathing apparatus because fires had spread into buildings. It is unimaginably exhausting and saps the strength of even the fittest in a matter of minutes. But I am grateful for the media coverage and the chance to bring this discussion to the front to educate people that fire don’t just happen to other people, they can happen to you, whether as a result of a small fault in that brand new expensive dishwasher in your kitchen or from a fire that doesn’t even start within your home but destroys it from the outside.