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New specialist wildfire training will teach the fire services to use fire to fight wildfires

The impact of wildfires in England has led to changes being made in the training of firefighters and the techniques they use. Interestingly a number of these techniques – such as using fire to stop or slow wildfires, the creation of firebreaks, and the removal of excess vegetation (which acts as a fuel load) are very similar to those that gamekeepers already practice on moorlands around the country.

An article for the BBC quotes Chief Fire Officer Paul Hedley, wildfire lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), as saying that the risk and threat of such major wildfires was "clearly growing in the UK", meaning that changes had to be made. "All of this learning from international partners, who are probably still some years ahead of us, is a very sensible way of trying to get us ahead of the curve," he said.

More fire crews are now training in skills from southern Europe and the US, and fire chiefs are particularly looking to expand the number of specialist teams trained in "burn suppression" techniques - the burning of land to keep a fire contained.

The wildfire-fighting methods being rolled out across the UK rely on a 'toolbox' of skills, from creating natural firebreaks and reducing the 'fuel-load' of vegetation to setting controlled burns deliberately around wildfires to stop their spread.

Currently, just five UK units across more than 50 fire and rescue services specialise in the "fighting fire with fire" technique, mostly in moorland areas.

Matt Oakley, a fire investigations officer for Surrey Fire and Rescue, is one of the UK's national wildfire tactical advisors - a group of specialist officers who already have the skills learnt abroad and who will be training units.

"Our climate is changing - it's changing beyond recognition," he explained. "What used to be a nine to 12-year cycle, this is every year now. We are heading towards a northern Mediterranean climate in the southeast of England within the next decade and this will be business as usual day in, day out."

It is interesting that when gamekeepers mention that controlled burns to reduce fuel load and create firebreaks are a vital tool in their toolbox, they are often shouted down by others who are totally against the use of fire, and who claim that rewetting peat is enough to solve our wildfire problem. What will the response be when the use of these techniques is suggested by the fire services themselves?

Rewetting of moorland and peat is hugely important – something that is recognised by all moorland owners, as can be seen in that fact that private owners have been rewetting upland peatlands for decades. However, with the UK seeing hotter and drier summers, wildfires are becoming more frequent, and a wet bog is not enough to stop a blazing fire, driven by a wind and covering thousands of acres.

There is a reason why indigenous people in warm climates, from the US to Australia and including Southern Europe, all learnt to use fire as a means of controlling wildfires and preventing them from spreading. Let's hope that by learning lessons from mediterranean countries the best methods of preventing wildfires will be implemented, regardless of any related politics.


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