Firefighters must be equipped to face new normal of wildfires

Wildfires are the new normal for too many of our rural communities. The Scottish and UK Governments must ensure that all firefighters have the equipment and facilities they require to keep as safe as possible, says Maggie Chapman MSP

Scottish Greens MSP Maggie Chapman has warned that massive wildfires of the scale that have been ripping through the Highlands in recent days are “the new normal.”.

Tinderbox conditions and wind helped worsen the spread of a blaze at Cannich which lies east of Loch Ness and around 30 miles south of Beauly.

Two firefighters were hurt and flown in two helicopters to hospitals in Aberdeen and Inverness when their 4x4 vehicle crashed and overturned near the scene of fire which had raged over 3000 hectares since last weekend.

More than 30 firefighters have been involved fighting the inferno, including crews from Balintore, Bealy, Fort Augustus and Newtonmore. A helicopter was also called in to dump water to try and control its spread.

Ms Chapman said:

“Our thoughts are with the two injured firefighters, their families and colleagues and we wish them a speedy recovery. It heartbreakingly illustrates the very real and physically demanding risks they face in tackling such incredibly complex situations.

"Wildfires are the new normal for too many of our rural communities. One piece of broken glass, one careless camper, soaring heat or just bad luck can ignite a tragedy on a massive scale. It is incumbent on the Scottish and UK Governments to ensure that all firefighters have the equipment and facilities required to keep as safe as possible, and to ensure we raise the awareness with the public about the increased risks and consequences.”

Over the past six years, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has tackled close to 1000 wildfires 1000m2 or more in size. Previous to this weekend, Scotland’s largest wildfire burned 5430 acres between Melvich and Strathy in Sutherland in May 2019.

FBU Regional Secretary John McKenzie said:

“Climate change, and the extreme weather it is producing, pose an ever increasing challenge for our profession, and although such incident types are becoming increasingly common, governments have been aware of the threat for decades.

"Heatwaves have been on the UK government’s National Risk Register since its first iteration in 2008, and wildfires as a national risk were added to the register in 2013. Our members are seeing first hand the risk of climate related emergencies growing year on year.

“Research predicts that parts of Scotland face a 34% increase in flooding over the next 50 years with extended periods of extreme winter rainfall now seven times more likely according to Met Office data. As temperatures rise and summer rainfall decreases, conditions highly conductive to wildfires could be nearly five times more common in some parts of the UK by the latter part of the century. July 2022 saw the temperature in parts of the UK exceed 40 degrees centigrade for the first time in recorded history.”

He added:

“Wildfires such as the ongoing incident near Cannich require significant numbers of firefighters and Fire and Rescue Service resources in order to extinguish them. They often cover extensive areas of rough terrain which are inaccessible other than on foot and therefore require firefighters to carry out physically demanding work for long periods of time, transporting heavy equipment by hand, whilst also being exposed to significant temperatures.

“Additionally, the nature of wildfires is such that they can last for long periods of time, often burning for many days, and at times, weeks on end. The ongoing Cannich wildfire shows some of the dangers firefighters face when dealing with such incidents.

“Two of our members were injured whilst tackling this fire, with both subsequently being airlifted to hospital as a result of those injuries.

“Thankfully both have now been deemed fit enough to return home, however the risk of tackling such incidents cannot be understated.”