Unprecedented. Perhaps an overused word, however, the temperatures experienced across a wide swathe of the UK over recent weeks certainly merits the word. A new record temperature of 40.3C was recorded with 33 other locations surpassing the previous record high of 38.7C, set in 2019.

These high temperatures saw fires break out in both urban and rural areas, causing damage to both open spaces and properties, bringing into focus the very real risks posed by wildfires.

Wildfires – A real risk to properties

Until the last few years, wildfire has not been seen as a particular problem in the UK, and as one that primarily affects the USA, Australia and parts of Europe. It was only in 2013 that severe wildfire was recognised as a risk in the UK [2]. Where they have occurred in the past, UK wildfires have tended to affect open areas, such as the Saddleworth Moor fires of 2018. Whilst they were disruptive and damaging, they had a limited impact on properties.

As recent events have demonstrated, wildfire can pose a very present and real risk to properties in the UK. A number of the fires seen over recent weeks occurred in suburban or urban areas, the fires started in open spaces, including by roadsides, and have spread to engulf homes and businesses. In addition, fire response services were very stretched, with at least seven areas declaring major incidents. The chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council has said that the 20 July was “just about the busiest I’ve ever seen the fire and rescue service” in his 30 years of service and the London Fire Brigade received 2,600 calls on what was its busiest day since the Second World War. [3]

Insurer considerations

With predictions that such hot weather will only increase in frequency and intensity over the years, insurers in the UK are aware of the threat posed by wildfires and no doubt will be focussing attention on the risk involved, more so than was thought necessary in the past, in order to help reduce losses going forward. Lessons should be learned from areas where wildfire has been a risk for a long time, and consideration given to techniques and methods that can lessen the risk of damage from wildfires, and the advice that should be given to home and property owners to reduce and mitigate any risks.

Paul Redington of Zurich Insurance explains Zurich’s concerns with regard to wildfires and the threat they pose:

“Wildfires are no longer an issue for faraway countries, with traditionally hot climates, such as Australia. Although smaller in scale, we’re seeing fires of increasing frequency and intensity here in the UK, and tragically the recent hot spell has seen many people lose their homes to these fires.

With temperatures rising as a result of climate change, a heavy accumulation of “fuel”, such as dry moorland, and winds from the east, create the perfect conditions for ignition. Even a deep-seated pile of cut, dried grass can ignite if subjected to very intense sunlight, then spreading to adjacent vegetation starved of moisture.

Some are sparked by carelessly discarded cigarettes, or disposable BBQ’s and sadly a few are deliberately set.

We need planners to carefully consider permission for housing in areas increasingly vulnerable to wildfire, such as new-builds on the edge of moorland. Greater cross-sector collaboration is also needed to more accurately assess, map and manage the risks facing the existing building stock. By doing this, we can begin to better protect people, businesses and ecosystems.” [4]

With the threat of wildfires only likely to increase in the future, in addition to giving more thought to where and how buildings are constructed, there needs to be a renewed focus on infrastructure and public services and whether they are equipped to meet the increasing threat of wildfire and the risk posed to lives, livelihoods and properties. [5]