Get serious about deadly wildfire threat to England’s urban areas, warns university expert

An ‘urgent conversation’ is needed about extreme heat and the wildfire risk that could threaten lives in urban areas, a School of Geography expert says.

Last week’s record-breaking heatwave, which saw temperatures soar to over 40°C, led to devastating wildfires across England, with more than 40 homes and shops destroyed in London and a major incident declared in South Yorkshire. 

Dr Stuart Hodkinson, of the University’s Faculty of Environment, has warned that everyone needs to ‘get serious fast’ about the risks posed by wildfires in urban areas.  

Dr Hodkinson, a lecturer in Critical Urban Geography, says the UK’s urban environments are not designed or build to cope with the new fire threats caused by climate change – which could have deadly consequences in the future.  

The events of last week in the UK - and across Europe - show that the risks of urban areas being affected by wildfires are real and everyone needs to get serious about this fast. 

Dr Stuart Hodkinson

He said: “Construction and firefighting have been previously geared towards the containment of single building fires or major incidents involving a factory or chemical plan, not fires that spread across dried out grasslands and moors to find a frightening amount of combustible materials in gardens and on the exterior and interior of our homes, schools, commercial, residential and office blocks.”  

Our places of residence, work, and recreation are filled with plastic - that is, solid petrol.  

Dr Stuart Hodkinson

Dr Hodkinson warned that fire services had been ‘decimated’ by a decade of austerity, with the need for ‘huge’ resources to tackle rapidly spreading wildfires. 

He said: “When a fire spreads in a tall building such as Grenfell Tower, the amount of fire and rescue resources needed to attend is huge - so imagine what that would mean if the fire service is having to fight multiple wildfires that are spreading rapidly into residential areas and then having to respond to a major fire at a tower block that is covered in flammable cladding of which there are still thousands left unremedied since the Grenfell fire in 2017.” 

Fires starting in cladding buildings, that can quickly ‘race up the side of the building’, would put hundreds of live at risk, he added.  

Fire chief’s warning

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has also warned that fire services need to take the risk of urban wildfires seriously. The council reports that this year alone England and Wales have had 442 wildfires – up from 247 in 2021.  

NFCC tactical adviser David Swallow told the Guardian that fire services who don’t prepare for wildfires are ‘naive’. 

He said: “There are very urban services that think that wildfires are low down on the risk list. I understand the need to prioritise resources, but there needs to be a review.” 

Dr Hodkinson, who led research into the fire safety of high rise flat blocks in 2021, agrees preparation is urgently needed. 

He said: We need an urgent conversation about what extreme heat will mean for our flammable urban environments and how prepared and resourced our fire and rescue services are.” 

Image via Karadis