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Firefighters stretched as grassfires in Northumberland increase by more than 50% during summer heatwave

A wildfire at the Otterburn ranges.
A wildfire at the Otterburn ranges.

The number of summer wildfires in Northumberland increased by more than 50% this year, 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 Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service tackled 181 grass and wild fires.

This was 61% more than the summertime yearly average from 2014 to 2017, Press Association analysis found, 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.”

the Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service did not provide data whether fires were accidental, however nationally 70% were started deliberately, where a motive was included.

The Northumberland 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 Northumberland the most common place for a blaze was tree scrub, with 36% of fires.

In 25% of incidents, fires were on scrub land, while 13% were reported in grassland.

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.”