Latest wildfire update - UK perspective

You may be forgiven for thinking that wildfires are limited to hot, dry regions such as California in the US and mainland Europe. This view was reinforced by the ongoing, tragic events near Athens in Greece. However, as predicted in our Insights Report last year, they are becoming more prevalent than ever, with the UK recently experiencing unprecedented wildfire activity.

Whilst it is no surprise that wildfires pose a global risk to the international insurance market, they clearly must be considered carefully in the UK too. The recent blaze at Saddleworth Moor is a prime example of exactly why that is so important.

Increased activity

A wildfire broke out on Saddleworth Moor, Greater Manchester on Tuesday 26 June 2018 and continued to rage for several weeks, engulfing over seven square miles of land.

At least 40 homes had to be evacuated, as well as businesses, and local schools were closed. The true value of the insurance losses is unlikely to be known until the blaze is out and policy holders have considered their position, but we predict that they will be significant.

In addition to the headline making fire at Saddleworth Moor, numerous other fires occurred during June and July in the UK, including: Wanstead Flats, East London; Feltham, West London; Ockenden, Essex; Winter Hill in Lancashire; Horrocks Moor Farm, Bolton; Glenshane Pass, Londonderry, Northern Island; the Vale of Rheidol and Mynydd Cilgwyn in Wales; Longwell Green, Somerset; Shawfield, Staffordshire; Burlescombe, Devon; Breidden Hill, Powys; Beacon Hill, Worcestershire; Halifax, Yorkshire; and Dinton in Wiltshire.

Smaller wildfires have also increased in number. Between 28 June and 1 July alone, the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service responded to 679 incidents. Of these, 438 – or 65% - related to wildfires.

The winds of change

Whilst the Saddleworth wildfire is likely to have manmade origins, climate change has impacted its scale.

The unusually dry conditions – it has been the driest start to a UK summer since 1961 - and wind direction led to the blaze merging with another burning on a neighbouring hill, not only increasing the ferocity of the original wildfire but also the difficulty to put it out. Whilst the emergency services do their best, rainfall is desperately needed. This unprecedented heatwave has, unfortunately, resulted in perfect conditions for wildfires to occur and thrive.

Assistant Chief Fire Office Tony Hunter summarised the issue when he spoke about tackling the wildfire as being ”…dependent on a downpour of rain – and it would have to be a significant downpour of rain because it is so dry it would be absorbed very, very quickly.”

UK risk

In March we spoke to the London Market Association about the risk posed by wildfires to the UK and discussed the National Risk Register produced annually by the government, classifying the risk of civil emergencies in the UK.

Wildfires were introduced to the register in 2013, and in 2015 were given a score of one out of a possible five in terms of impact and likelihood of occurring in the next five years. Interestingly, the 2017 register increased that scoring to two, showing a perceived higher risk and, also, a greater awareness of the issue.

Comment

In our November 2017 paper, we recommended steps which could be taken to help manage the risk going forward, all of which remain true today.

The current position is that the UK does not yet have a specific national wildfire agency or strategy and the military have been called in to help tackle the Saddleworth blaze.

It seems that due to their intermittent frequency and remote locations, wildfires have been largely overlooked by policy makers. But with the frequency and scale of UK wildfires increasing – as well as current average annual costs to the Fire and Rescue Services mounting to circa £55 million - it is not something to be ignored anymore and a plan is needed.

We recommend that planning regulations should specifically consider the threat of wildfires. Currently, developers’ awareness of wildfire risk in the UK with regards to the rural/urban interface remains low, leading to a risk that major residential developments will be situated next to high-risk wildfire sites. Put simply, the closer people are to high risk areas, the more losses will be incurred.

In some countries, approval of development applications can actually be dependent upon the measures taken to mitigate the risk associated with wildfires; perhaps this is something the UK should consider implementing.

There is no simple solution to limit the impact of wildfires. By their nature, they are an uncontrollable force. But the industry (both at home and abroad) needs to work with legislators, communities and individuals to limit exposure and losses as far as possible.

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Read other items in the London Market Brief - July 2018