Toward a UK fire danger rating system: Understanding fuels, fire behaviour and impacts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment, Education and Development


Wildfires have traditionally been perceived as a threat confined to regions such as Southern Europe or Australia. However, the global wildfire threat is expanding and recognition of wildfire hazard in the UK has grown substantially in recent years. In the eight financial years between April 2009 and March 2017 over 250,000 wildfire incidents were dealt with by the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in England alone. Individual events have been spatially extensive, challenging to fight (e.g. Saddleworth Moor, 2018), and have threatened property, transport and other infrastructure, especially in the rural-urban interface (e.g. Swinley Forest, April/May 2011). Response costs alone for vegetation fires in Great Britain have been estimated at £55 million per year, with individual large scale events costing up to £1 million. In response to significant fire seasons (e.g. 2003 & 2011), 'severe wildfire' has been included on the National Risk Register and two cross-sector national Wildfire Forums have been established (England and Wales; Scotland (with Northern Ireland)). These initiatives evidence the need for appropriate fundamental scientific understanding and systems to manage and mitigate the current and future UK wildfire threat. The recent Climate Change Risk Assessment has also highlighted the increased risk of wildfires.

Fire danger is a description of the combination of both constant and variable factors that affect the initiation, spread, and ease of controlling a wildfire on an area. Wildfire Danger Rating Systems (WFDRS) are designed to assess the fuel and weather to provide estimates of flammability and likely fire behaviour under those conditions. These danger ratings can inform management decisions for land managers, direct resourcing plans for FRS teams, and feed into strategic planning for local and national governments.

The UK does not have a WFDRS and we lack the fundamental scientific and end-user understanding to effectively predict the likelihood, behaviour and impact of wildfire incidents in the UK for present and future climate and land use scenarios. England and Wales has the Met Office Fire Severity Index system (MOFSI) operated by the Met Office based on weather forecasts only and this is solely designed to determine if open access land should be closed as defined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) during 'exceptional' fire weather. However, during the 2018 UK drought MOFSI indices did not rise sufficiently to trigger land closures in areas that suffered severe wildfires. Additionally, due to the absence of a WFDRS in the UK, the algorithms underlying MOFSI are also used to inform the Natural Hazard Partnership Daily Hazard Assessment. The insensitivity to recent extreme fire conditions of 2018 are indicative of its inability to properly forewarn government, responders and land owners.

We therefore need a bespoke WFDRS for the UK. This project will undertake the fundamental science and analyses required for building a UK-specific WFDRS, informed by key stakeholders who will act as project partners. This must be designed for UK fuels, its complex land cover mosaics and infrastructure, and changing land use patterns and climate.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?
This project addresses research priorities identified in the ESRC/NERC-funded Transdisciplinary Research Seminar Series 'FIRES' (RES-496-26-0038) policy brief (McMorrow et al., 2010) including a better understanding of fire behaviour in UK vegetation. It also addresses the key wildfire research needs identified in the recent CCRA2 (Brown et al. 2016), and those identified by stakeholders consulted during the preparation of the briefing note Next steps for wildfire Danger Assessment in the UK (Tsakiridou et al. 2018). This project therefore has cross-sector end-user support from across the UK, who are formally embedded as Project Partners, and benefits from access to a comprehensive network of UK beneficiaries and end-users developed through 'FIRES' and subsequent NERC-funded KE 'Project Knowledge for Wildfire (KfWf)' (NE/J500768/1).

Key end-user beneficiaries are: Fire and Rescue Services (FRS); the land management sector, e.g. Moorland Association; forestry sector; National Park Authorities (NPAs); Natural England (NE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and other non-departmental government bodies, conservation agencies; the Met Office; local and national government resilience planners; national forums (e.g. England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF); see Thorp Letter of Support [LoS]).

Internationally, this project will benefit researchers and fire practitioners working in ecosystems across similar oceanic climate zones (e.g. NW Europe, New Zealand); and we have close links with wildfire scientists and researchers in these areas (e.g. EFFIS, SCION). There are few fire danger rating systems designed for such ecosystems and this project will therefore allow the UK to lead the way in this area and to develop globally important research capacity. For example, Dr Mike Wotton notes "the work done within this proposal would allow us in Canada to enhance our models" [Wotton LoS].

How will they benefit from this research?
The project will provide end-users with a better understanding of fire danger and fire behaviour in a UK context. This information can be used tactically - it will give the FRS new insights into factors affecting fire behaviour and so enhance wildfire control. As Paul Hedley (NFCC Wildfire Lead Officer) notes it would also contribute to: "significantly improved firefighter safety" [Hedley LoS]. It can also be used strategically, in planning of FRS resources ("potential for proactive pre-positioning of resources to match risk" Hedley LoS), in land management decisions (e.g. firebreak design, tree species choice, and vegetation management for fuel reduction), and in local development planning. It will lead to increased awareness amongst practitioners who use fire as a management tool about 'good' and 'bad' days to burn, and through a deeper understanding of fire behaviour.

The research outputs and stakeholder meetings will also help inform policies for local fire management plans, as well as national civil contingency planning. Wildfire was included for the first time on the 2013 National Risk Register (Cabinet Office, 2013) and thus wildfire must now be assessed by Local Resilience Forums (LRF) for consideration on Community Risk Registers and Integrated Risk Management Plans. A dedicated UK WFDRS would help them to demonstrate wildfire impacts to LRFs in wildfire 'hotspots'.

Reference: Cabinet Office (2013) National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, Cabinet Office, London.
McMorrow et al. (2010) FIRES Policy Brief. Available online:
Brown et al. (2016) UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report, Chapter 3, Natural Environment and Natural Assets. Adaptation SubCommittee of Climate Change Committee, London. 207pp.
Tsakaridou M., Gazzard, R. & Morison, J. (2018) Briefing Note: Next steps for wildfire Danger Assessment in the UK, Presented to EWWF and circulated to stakeholders.


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