Firefighters on ‘frontlines of climate crisis’ without enough support, warns union chief

Daisy Dunne
·5-min read
<p>Firefighters attend a fire in Glasgow</p> (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Firefighters attend a fire in Glasgow

(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Firefighters are on the “frontlines of the climate crisis” and need more support to deal with worsening extreme weather events in the UK, the Fire Brigades Union has warned.

Across the UK, there are now 11,200 fewer firefighters than there were a decade ago, public data shows. At the same time, the demand for firefighters to respond to severe extreme weather events has increased, said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the union.

He told The Independent: “Firefighters are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. This manifests itself in extreme weather events such as major floods, which have certainly increased over the past 15 years and have become a much more regular area of work for firefighters, or moorland fires that spread because of long, dry summers.

“[The climate crisis] is clearly the question of the age, it’s about the survival of humanity ultimately. But I think the test about whether the government is serious about this issue is what it does about those who are asked to face the impacts of climate change.

"Our experience so far is that there is a huge level of underfunding for our work in that field.”

The UK has seen a spike in the number and size of wildfires since 2018. Last Easter, Scotland was gripped by one of the largest wildfires recorded in the country’s history. The fire burned through 7,000 hectares of grassland in Morayshire, an area larger than the size of Nottingham.

This summer also saw fires sweep across heathlands in Surrey, forcing the evacuation of 100 homes.

A review of more than 100 scientific studies conducted by the research group Science Brief earlier this year concluded that the climate crisis was increasing the risk of wildfires worldwide.

In the UK, summers are becoming hotter and drier, which is causing vegetation to dry out. This means that once a fire is started it can spread more quickly.

At the same time, winters are becoming warmer and wetter, which is likely boosting plant growth. The increase in vegetation means there is potentially more “fuel” around to aid the spread of fires, explains Dr Thomas Smith, a wildfires researcher at the London School of Economics.

He told The Independent: “It is difficult to establish whether wildfire behaviour has changed in the UK, as reliable records do not extend beyond around 10 years ago. The last three years have seen consistently above-average wildfire activity in the UK according to the satellite record, suggesting wildfires might be shifting to a more frequent annual problem in some parts of the country.

“Our best source of knowledge is from our firefighters, some of whom are publicly acknowledging that the wildfire season has become longer and less predictable, with larger fires at unusual times of the year.”

Over the last year, there has also been a 16 per cent increase in the number of flooding events requiring a fire and rescue service response.

Ducks swimming in a back garden surrounded by flood water in Monmouth in the aftermath of Storm DennisPA
Ducks swimming in a back garden surrounded by flood water in Monmouth in the aftermath of Storm DennisPA

Earlier this year, storms Ciara and Dennis brought hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall to regions across the UK, causing severe flooding. The two storms caused 20 fatalities and thousands more to lose their homes.

A research paper found that severe flooding across southern England from 2013 to 2014 was made more intense by human-caused climate change.

Further research shows that severe future climate change will lead to more flooding in the UK, if little is done to prepare for rising sea levels and increasing storminess.

The spending plans set out by the chancellor on Wednesday have offered firefighters and other frontline workers little in the way of support, said Mr Wrack.

“There’s certainly not the large-scale investment that we think the fire rescue service needs over a sustained period of time," he added.

“We’ve suffered a decade now of the worst austerity in the fire service in modern history. We’ve seen unprecedented cuts in the number of jobs. More than 11,000 firefighter posts have gone, that’s 20 per cent of the workforce. That’s huge for us.”

The Fire Brigades Union was one of more than a dozen organisations to write to the chancellor this week to call for more resources for firefighters to help them tackle worsening climate disasters.

The letter, which is also signed by representatives from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Women’s Environmental Network, says: “As the UK has become more exposed to the effects of climate change, the fire and rescue service has not seen its funding increase to match the threat.

“Between 2013-14 and 2020-21, central funding for fire has been reduced by 30 per cent in cash terms alone. There are 11,200 fewer firefighters than there were a decade ago. This has left services exposed and ill-resourced to respond effectively to a climate in breakdown.

“As the climate continues to warm and the environment faces further collapse, it is clear to us that our first line of defence, the fire and rescue service, needs more investment, starting with the recruitment of at least 5,000 frontline firefighters in the next year.”

An HM Treasury spokesperson said: "The 2019 Spending Round increased fire and rescue services budgets to £2.3bn in 2020-21, with standalone Fire and Rescue Authorities seeing an increase in their core spending power of 3.2 per cent in cash terms.

"The UK is leading the way in addressing climate change, and today’s Spending Review invests in a greener future by delivering the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan for climate change."

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