Britain is currently being impacted by a large number of forest fires; from Swinley Forest in Berkshire, to forests further north in England at Merseyside and Yorkshire, and also in the Scottish Highlands (see BBC news article). With changes in our projected climate, these may become a more common in the future.
Forest fires in Britain
Compared to many other European countries, particularly those further south, Britain has a relatively low occurrence of forest fires. The most damaging forest fires tend to occur during a dry Spring, such as the one we are currently experiencing, when material from the previous growing season still litters the forest floor.
According to Forest Research statistics, fire incidences peak in years with extended summer droughts, the most recent being 1976.
Forest fires and British wildlife
Wildfires are a natural part of some forest ecosystems but unlike some other areas of the world the ecosystems and forest wildlife of Britain are not adapted to, nor require, fire to regenerate.
For many decades the United States Forest Service tried to suppress all fires. This policy was epitomised by the mascot Smokey Bear. The policy was questioned in the 1960s, when it was realised that Giant Sequoia trees (Sequoia sempervirens) were not regenerating in the forests of California because fire is an essential part of their life cycle. Some tree species are adapted to fire by retaining non-dormant seeds, releasing them only after exposure to fire (this is called serotiny). Some tree species even encourage fire, for example eucalypts contain flammable oils in their leaves as a way to eliminate competition from less fire-tolerant species.
In Britain however, native tree species, and other forest wildlife, will be poorly adapted and changes to forest ecology difficult to predict to any increase in forest fires. It is likely that fast colonisers and invasive species may benefit, altering existing ecological communities.
Climate change and fire – planning for the future
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the effects of temperature increases have already been documented on forest management in the Northern Hemisphere, including increased incidences of fires. There are a number of practical steps that could be taken in Britain to deal with any increased fire risk:
- develop ‘fire-smart’ landscapes
- need to plan at the landscape scale, while …
- at a local scale, incorporate firebreaks, resilient species (including non-natives?)
- plant species that retard fire spread (e.g. Aspen is used to retard fire progress in boreal forests)
- plant species that are fire resilient (e.g. alder Alnus glutinosa)
- focus effort appropriately (e.g. allow wildfires to run their course if little socio-economic threat)
- improve management (e.g. thinning, forest floor maintenance)
- British foresters should look to France, Portugal and Spain to understand drought and fire modelling elsewhere in Europe.
- Coultherd, P., (1978). The effect of the 1976 drought on established and recently-planted trees is discussed with particular reference to their greater susceptibility to disease and to the fire danger. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, 72(2): 67-80.
- Groisman, P., Sherstyukov, B., Razuvaev, V., Knight, R., Enloe, J., Stroumentova, N., Whitfield, P., Førland, E., Hannsen-Bauer, I., Tuomenvirta, H., Aleksandersson, H., Mescherskaya, A. and Karl, T., (2007). Potential forest fire danger over Northern Eurasia: changes during the 20th century. Global and Planetary Change, 56: 371-386.
- Hemery, G.E. (2007). Forest management and silvicultural responses to predicted climate change impacts on valuable broadleaved species. Short-Term Scientific Mission report for Working Group 1, COST Action E42. Download