Deliberate grass and wildfires contribute to frantic summer for Northamptonshire firefighters

File photo dated 28/6/2018 of firefighters tackle the wildfire on Saddleworth Moor. Firefighters have warned they are under-funded, short-staffed and ill-equipped to deal with an increase in wildfires as new figures show the number of blazes on open ground this summer was more than double the average of previous years. pa/FIRE Summer 07063235.JPG
File photo dated 28/6/2018 of firefighters tackle the wildfire on Saddleworth Moor. Firefighters have warned they are under-funded, short-staffed and ill-equipped to deal with an increase in wildfires as new figures show the number of blazes on open ground this summer was more than double the average of previous years. pa/FIRE Summer 07063235.JPG

The long, dry summer contributed to a huge increase of grass and wild fires in Northamptonshire this year, with more than half of them being started deliberately.

Crews in the county saw the number of such incidents rise by 50% , as the Fire Brigade Union warned its staff are under-funded and ill-equipped to deal with such an increase.

Between May and July, the Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service tackled 166 grass and wild fires.

This was 50% more than the summertime yearly average from 2014 to 2017, as the summer’s soaring temperatures and weeks without rainfall turned grasslands into tinderboxes.

The figures show July had the highest number of fires in the joint hottest summer on record, according to the Met Office.

Across the UK, the number of grassfires increased by 157% in 2018, with almost 25,000 call outs over the three-month period.

Responding to the figures, a spokesman for the Fire Brigade Union said: “The growing risk of grass fires represents another strain on the dwindling resources of fire and rescue services, who are currently experiencing severe budget cuts across the country.

“Fire services do not receive enough funding to respond to an increase on this scale.”

A Freedom of Information request, to the Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service, found 56% of the fires were started deliberately.

The Northamptonshire figures did not specify a cause, however in the national data where a cause was stated, 38% were caused by a naked flame, such as candles or matches.

In 17% smoking materials, such as a lighter or cigarette, were the source, and 11% started naturally.

In Northamptonshire the most common place for a blaze was grassland, with 20% of fires.

In 19% of incidents, fires were on gardens, while 16% were reported in tree scrub.

The most high profile fires of the summer, across the country, were at Winter Hill in Lancashire, which covered seven square miles, and Saddleworth Moor, near Manchester, which saw firefighters appealing to the public to donate sun cream, bug spray, and hats.

The FBU spokesman continued: “Does that sound like a properly resourced fire service? We also had reports of firefighters working for 17 hours straight to get the wildfires under control. That is simply not good enough.”

Large sections of the country went without rain for months this year, and satellite imagery showed the usually green image of the verdant British Isles turn to a dry yellow and brown.

Chris Lowther, operations lead at the National Fire Chiefs Council, called the summer’s weather “exceptional” but added “we can’t ignore the longer-term impact of climate change on fire services”.

“We have seen an increase in the number of fires in recent years alongside a 21% reduction in the number of wholetime firefighters since 2011. It is vital the communities fire services represent have confidence in their emergency services,” he said.

Karen Lee MP, shadow fire and emergencies minister, said: “Climate change is a very real and visible threat to our communities and landscapes. The threats are changing while the fire service’s ability to respond is being degraded.

“The Conservative government are not taking the public’s safety seriously. While large disasters such as the Saddleworth and Tameside fire devastated our grassland, fire services across the UK have seen swingeing cuts to their budgets and the total number of firefighters has been cut by nearly 12,000 since 2010.

“You can’t keep the public safe on a shoe-string budget. If the Conservatives are not going to take the public’s safety seriously, they should make way for a party that will.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The tireless efforts of firefighters to contain wildfires this summer have been astounding.

“We have made sure fire and rescue services have the support and equipment required to successfully fight these types of fires.

“We support FRSs by providing specialist capabilities for the largest emergencies, including high volume pumps and the National Resilience team of specialist experts. Soldiers have also been deployed to tackle these incidents.”