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SHAUN WALTON: 30 Years of Fighting Wildfires in the UK Fire & Rescue

In the UK today, we have more frequent, severe and widespread wildfires, and a longer wildfire season, and we need to prepare for and focus on local, national and international learning; prevention; pro-active prescribed burning; fire weather prediction systems; and joint operational response more than ever, to deal with the next generation of wildfires. The UK Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP), UK FRS National Operational Learning (NOL) and UK National Operational Guidance (NOG) support and help progress multi-agency and fire sector learning and development and provide current and consistent standard operational procedures, thereby improving firefighter safety and public welfare.

Pooling knowledge from several Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in high-risk areas of Greater Manchester, including areas that bordered Peak District National Park, we developed wildfire planning and response partnerships, working with and learning from key on-the-ground land managers who had immense local knowledge of fire behaviour and other landscape attributes that they accumulated over many years of experience managing prescribed burns and uncontrolled wildfires, which they often handled without the intervention of FRSs.

The 27th of August 1990 was a significant day for me. I was a 20-year-old with a clear mindset on what I wanted to do with my life. I had been fortunate to pass the selection process for a career in the Fire Service, and this was the day it all started, as I began my initial training as a full-time Fire Fighter with Greater Manchester County Fire & Rescue Service (FRS) in North West England.

Greater Manchester County covers 496 square miles with a current population of 2.8 million. It has many densely populated commercial, industrial and residential areas surrounded by significant environmentally protected areas of rural moorland. The Service responds to all fire and rescue incident types within the county, so in my career I gained wide experience in both structural as well a s wildfire fighting, plus dealing with traffic collisions, water rescues/flooding and chemical incidents. When I began my career there were 41 stations and over 60 fire appliances covering Greater Manchester.

The first station I served at was in Bolton. It was an excellent station to begin my career as the area covered varied risks, including large towns, and miles of rural moorland areas with forests and infrastructure, including the Winter Hill telecommunications center in the heart of the moorland area.

As spring 1991 approached, experienced fire colleagues advised me to be prepared for the busy moorland fire season. Spring fires, they said, were flashy with a high rate of spread, unlike summer fires, which tended to burn in peat, i.e., underground. When battling moorland fires we often wouldn’t return to the fire station for long periods of time, spending full shifts in the field. The first moorland fire I was on as a probationary firefighter was on Winter Hill, by chance the same place as my last moorland fire in 2020. This career-climax fire was without doubt the most challenging wildfire of my career.

The term wildfire or wildland fire wasn’t used in the UK in the early 90s — moorland fire or forest fire was the preferred terminology — some referred to them as grass fires. Those latter terms suggest that the wildfires back then were less severe, frequent and destructive than many of the wildfires we have now.

Back then, there were no internet, mobile phones or social media, making it difficult to compare wildfires across the UK and the world. The world worked at a slower pace in terms of technology and communications. Professional relationships took longer to establish, both within the UK and internationally, and the lack of internet meant collecting and sharing data, things such fire severity index and weather etc, was slow and difficult. Many emergency responders operated in quasi-isolation, not able to efficiently share with and learn from others.

The advice I was given in my first fire season by my veteran colleagues was absolutely right–those moorland surface fires burned rapidly through expanses of tinder-dry fine fuels and were challenging to suppress.

The norm in the 90s was to attack using large numbers of firefighters and fire trucks, sometimes excluding landowners and land managers, which is quite different from the collective wildfire management we advocate and use today. Fire crews often initially responded to the place from where the caller reported the fire, not the place where the fire actually was or would soon be, the caller often being on a roadway looking at a wildfire miles away over open moorland. Our fire crews would then chase the fire on foot from the tail whilst the head of the fire was some distance away and most likely traveling faster than we were! Often other fire crews attended different locations on the fire miles away from the initial crew, and ineffective radio communications prevented coordinated responses. We had few off-road vehicles, as moorland fires were seen as an occasional, seasonal issue that could be managed with existing, albeit stretched resources. Aircraft were extremely limited because of availability and cost. If anything, one helicopter with a Bambi water bucket would help out, often arriving a day after the first response.

Those spring 1990 wildfires were mainly surface fires due to colder winters that reduced the availability of sub-surface fuels (i.e. peat) to become involved in the fires while encouraging aboveground vegetation to grow strong, long roots to collect water. Recent milder, wetter winters have discouraged vegetation from developing strong, deep roots to gather water. In drought conditions, although this vegetation is green to the eye, it lacks moisture and is more susceptible to carrying fire. I see this as a significant change and one that increases the window of opportunity for wildfires in late spring-early summer, creating a longer fire season. Other climate-change dynamics, along with changes in land use and management, and restrictions on prescribed burning, are creating a perfect storm for increasingly challenging wildfires in the UK.

Like most UK FRSs in the 90s, we had very few, if any, specialized wildfire teams and equipment. Fire crews on moorland or grass fires used exactly the same Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they used on structural fires. This included rubber boots and heavy structural fire kit that were punishing to wear whilst making one’s way on-foot across miles of moorland to attack fires and prevented us from effectively managing the fires. Body heat could not escape the heavy gear, leaving one quickly exhausted. The heavy, cumbersome and no-breathable boots led to sore, blistered feet. For many reasons, including perception of wildfire threat and financial constraints, some FRSs in the UK still utilise structural fire kit to fight wildfires, but some FRSs have invested in proper PPE and other equipment, as well as training.

The mindset in the early 90s was invariably to simply chase the red stuff (fire) and put the wet stuff (water) on it and/or beat it out with decommissioned fire hose on sticks (beaters). Often 20 fire trucks would be parked, unattended, at the roadside, whilst over 120 firefighters were deployed on foot on the moors. Today, the UK has National Operational Guidance with detailed standard operational procedures for dealing with wildfires, and integrated core incident command and environmental protection techniques. During my career I was able to play a role in developing these procedures with the UK FRS.

Shaun Walton

Back in the 90s, the high rate of spread of the wildfires almost always meant the fires would come to a stop on their own at a roadway before the running fire fighters could catch up to the head. We would position fire engines to try to stop fire that threatened buildings and other infrastructure. This chasing of wildfires while protecting numerous infrastructure and buildings required considerable resources and was finally realized to be unsustainable. Managing the land more effectively by lessening restrictions, working on prevention/education and building partnerships across all stake holders is now widely accepted as the way forward.

In my early career, during June most of the moorland landowners and managers took their holidays. Back then at that time of the year the UK countryside greened over with lush new growth, a product of the cold winters and wet springs, and it was rare to have wildfires in June in the UK. As July ended so, too, did the shift from spring wildfires to more intense summer wildfires. These later seasonal wildfires were a completely different ball game and really tested FRSs, as they burned longer, more severely and deeper into the peat. They also produced challenging surface fires that spread rapidly over large areas, fanned by warm, southernly winds.

During the next 16 years I developed my firefighting skills, both structural as well as in wildland fire. I progressed through the ranks and was promoted to managing a cluster of fire stations, at that point meeting an influential colleague who was passionate about wildfire and was focused on developing wildfire planning and response partnerships, working in high-risk areas of Greater Manchester, including areas that bordered the Peak District National Park. This Park bordered several FRSs, allowing us to pool knowledge and skills. We were fortunate to work with and learn from key land managers who had immense local knowledge of fire behaviour and other landscape attributes due to many years of experience managing prescribed burns and uncontrolled wildfires, often without the intervention of FRSs.

This significant step led to a Wildfire Officer cohort n Greater Manchester having detailed knowledge of fire behaviour with the support of experienced, local land managers. We also worked with universities to determine the economic cost of fire and to model changing socioecological conditions that were leading to increasingly frequent and severe wildfires.

Over the next few years great trust was developed between stakeholders and firefighters, most importantly with land managers who helped develop a cohesive approach for preventing, planning for, and managing wildfires. This established a precedent in which stakeholders regularly worked together closely, sharing knowledge, tactics and equipment. Conflicting priorities in UK law and land use policy sometimes prevented viable active land management such as prescribed burning to create fuel breaks. Sadly, these conflicting priorities still exist, meaning larger areas of land will be unnecessarily affected by wildfires.

As the years went on, it became clear to me that wildfire was not primarily a FRS problem, that the causes and impacts were much wider and more complex, and that what wildland fire management in the UK required was a fully integrated approach involving multiple stakeholders, in particular the UK Government. What was needed was a national policy with support mechanisms for managing wildfire prevention, preparedness and response.

In 2009 I transferred on promotion from Greater Manchester FRS to the geographically adjacent Lancashire FRS. Like Manchester, Lancashire has a mix of cities and rural areas and shares similar wildfire risks. However, Lancashire is larger with significant moorland challenges both within Lancashire as well as in adjoining Manchester, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Merseyside.

My passion for wildfire fit well in my new position. Within my first few months there, Lancashire experienced a significant wildfire at Belmont, an area adjoining Manchester. This incident generated many opportunities for learning and for sharing good practices, leading myself and a colleague to attend Advanced Wildfire Courses with Wales and Northumberland FRSs. We consolidated our knowledge and delivered updated mandatory wildfire management training to all Lancashire FRS personnel, including the Chief Fire Officer, to assist in providing strategic direction and buy-in from all colleagues to raise the level of understanding of and preparedness for the growing threat of wildfire. This allowed us to benchmark knowledge, while ensuring that new recruits received wildfire awareness training with clear procedures. These significant developments showed that some FRSs accepted the fact that a new generation of wildfires was threatening the UK, and that it was imperative to firefighter and public safety to adapt to this new situation.

Chief Fire Officer (CFO) Paul Hedley from Northumberland FRS is the UK Wildfire Lead Officer and also chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Wildfire Group. Chief Hedley invited me to represent Lancashire FRS at the NFCC. I later became Deputy Chair and Interim Chair of the group. During this time I had the privilege of working with some fantastic and knowledgeable people and organisations, both within the UK and internationally, and working together we improved wildfire related matters with the UK.

One of the most significant moments of the group for me was developing the NFCC Wildfire Tactical Advisors (WTA). This group consisted of a small cohort of appropriately trained and knowledgeable fire officers from UK FRSs who volunteered with the support of their CFOs to be deployed at short notice anywhere in the UK, utilising a standardized UK Fire National Resilience mobilising mechanism. The aim of the WTA was to provide advice and support to Fire Incident Commanders and their teams on operational wildfire-related matters. It was my pleasure to be Lead Wildfire Tactical Advisor for the UK. I was part of the first team to be deployed to the North West England Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill fires of 2018. The feedback we received from CFOs about the wildfires we attended over 2018/19 was extremely positive and with UK Government, UK FRS and NFCC support, the NFCC Wildfire Group increasingly improved.

My work with NFCC led to invitations to attend national and international wildfire conferences. This helped me to be a part of increasing both UK FRSs’ and UK stakeholders’ awareness of and commitment to wildfire preparedness. I attended The UK Home Office in London with the Wildfire Lead Officer to provide updates on progress and threats and to discuss opportunities for improvement.

A turning point for me was attending an international conference with Pau Costa in Catalonia. There I met many colleagues whom I now call friends. Pau Costa is a true supporter of sharing best practices, and has been great in helping UK Wildfire to improve prevention and response. During a further fact-finding visit to Catalonia, I was exposed to the Catalonia Wildfire Burn Teams, which utilise fire behaviour knowledge to manage wildfires that are generations in advance of UK wildfires.

Working closely with Pau Costa since about 2010, and with the support of a forward-thinking UK FRS Senior Management Team at Lancashire FRS, we trained and delivered a 16-person Wildfire Burn Team based in Lancashire. This exceptional training, delivered with the support of colleagues from Mafra, Portugal, aimed at exposing the Lancashire FRS team to extreme fire behaviour that could not be replicated in the UK (we have in the short time since this training already experienced frequent, severe fires that had potential to endanger life in the UK) thereby preparing them for the UK’s increasingly challenging wildfires. The Lancashire FRS team also attended wildfire training delivered by South Wales FRS to learn skills common to many UK FRS environments. This complemented the international training while forging relationships between UK Wildfire Burn Teams.

Since we brought this new wildfire management capacity back to Lancashire it has been used to great benefit, reducing the impact of wildfire on the environment, structures and the public. It has improved community safety by requiring fewer fire engines being committed to wildfires due to utilisation of burn teams, reducing the time taken to bring wildfires under control, and limiting air pollution and improving health to those in the community with underlying respiratory conditions, due to less duration and intensity of wildfire smoke. It has also reduced the impact on firefighters by reducing the time spent working incidents (due to more effective tactical management of wildfires), and improved firefighter safety through having a better managed and safer process available to incident commanders.

The Wildfire Burn Team’s value was recognized by UK FRSs, with the team being repeatedly requested via NFCC and National Resilience to support Fire Incident Commanders across the UK in dealing with wildfires. When it was practical, the team also travelled to assist in other FRSs.

The UK is now experiencing wildfires more akin to Mediterranean regions than those that historically burned in the UK. During my early career the late spring-early summer wildfire season usually ended during June. Severe wildfires were usually regionally based across the UK, but very rarely simultaneously in Northern Scotland, Ireland, Wales and all parts of England, as we are seeing now. The fires burned on a 5-7 year cycle.

We now see wildfires occurring more frequently, starting earlier in the year, burning between spring and summer without a break and burning later into winter. The UK wildfire season has extended significantly in the last 30 years, following trends in other parts of the world, most notably the Mediterranean and USA. Wildfires in the UK have increased in severity, with fire burning deeper into the peat and forest vegetation increasingly involved. Larger geographic areas are burned in areas previously not susceptible to wildfire. All this has led to FRSs in the UK being stretched more than ever. We have FRSs that once did not have wildfires now experiencing them in their own areas and/or travelling to other parts of the UK to support other FRSs. Timescales to manage fires often stretch into weeks, and crews are also responsible for responding to non-fire emergencies. This new era of UK wildfire means that FRSs must reassess their capabilities for these worsening incidents in their own geographic areas, while providing support to other FRSs.

The long-term recovery phase of wildfires and the financial impact to society is becoming unsustainable. As environmental lands are developed, we need rigorous wildfire management plans, plans that are adaptive and use lessons learned, to be a part of the development. Areas of conservation work and young forest plantations are being impacted by wildfire. Individual agency’s priorities need to be agreed upon locally, to ensure all agencies work under one plan, with clear multi-agency priorities and achievable outcomes. It is important that we now start planning and training for worse-case UK Wildfire scenarios.

The USA’s National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a highly regarded partner of the NFCC, and its Wildfire Division is helping partners around the globe recognize and prepare for increasing wildfire risks. In the USA, states such as California have a wildfire season that in varying areas can be year-round. In the UK we are experiencing the type of wildfires that Catalonia had a decade ago. This trend is widespread, with each country experiencing worse wildfires. We need to be looking forward to the risks that seem sure to face us in decades to come, using lessons learned from other countries so we don’t make the same mistake twice. We are not going to lessen the impact of increasingly frequent and severe fires if we don’t change our approach. We must take strategic intent based on an integrated approach to tactical delivery at the local level. We need to re-evaluate our ways of working to protect our communities, our firefighters and responders, and the environment.

We need to concentrate on working with all stakeholders to develop a national strategy, delivered by the UK Government, to manage wildfire across all UK Government Departments, one that can be incorporated into National Risk/Local Community Risk Registers, Integrated Risk Management Plans, and Local Resilience Forums.

The strategy must center on effective land management (including prescribed burning and other proactive techniques), wildfire prevention and an effective response capability, and it must address conflicting priorities of government departments. Working together to change our cultural approach by providing consistent and timely messages and education to prevent actions that contribute accidentally or deliberately to wildfire ignition is essential. Wildfire Tactical Advisors of the NFCC should be used to improve firefighter safety and provide consistency to wildfire response. Funding is needed for national capability recognition and representation in National Capability Advisory Teams, thereby ensuring initial training, and uniform PPE and other equipment.

The UK has very limited aircraft suppression capability compared to some other countries. We need a frank assessment of aircraft support to assess wildfires, transport firefighters and equipment, and help suppress wildfires.

The UKs’ FRSs lack uniform response capabilities. All FRSs should be utilising UK FRS NOG to develop policies and procedures, and provide PPE fit for wildfire use rather than utilising structural PPE. The isolated changes in making proper PPE available made over the last 5 years is heartening, but must become widespread and systematic.

I urge all FRSs to develop Wildfire Burn Teams, which can provide more effective, efficient and safe wildfire management. Whilst wildfire is still seen as a seasonal risk  in the UK, it can restrict FRS investment as there are other competing priorities year-round. FRSs might consider utilising wildfire teams during non-wildfire season to provide flooding and water rescue, as it is unlikely that the two incident types will be in high demand simultaneously. Understanding how ground erosion caused by wildfire in spring/summer months may lead to more flooding in other seasons by responders dealing with both phenomena could help mitigate each problem.

Developing a clearly defined UK Strategy, bespoke Wildfire Burn Teams, centrally funded and managed NFCC Wildfire Tac Ads and improved National Capability might be seen as a difficult aim, a bit like turning a super tanker, but we must start somewhere. Nature’s global clock is ticking, and we need to act now to break the inertia and accept wildfire as a clear, present and increasing threat in the UK. There are some fantastic UK and international wildfire organisations with dedicated people actively and openly trying to reach out. We need to embrace the change required to prepare the international wildland fire family for the next generation of fires.

SHAUN WALTON retired from the Fire and Rescue Service in August 2020 as a Group Manager having completed 30 years service and making lifelong friends both in the UK and internationally. He looks forward to these friendships continuing and new ones developing. He remains passionate about wildfire and continues to share experiences and develop teams. Shaun is currently working with a UK training provider to develop and deliver wildfire simulation training utilising the latest technology to improve firefighter safety and wildfire incident command. He is also keen to help the NFCC and NFPA deliver a Firewise Community in parts of Lancashire and Greater Manchester in the North of England.