The optimal setting for a wildfire to occur is following an exceptionally dry period which in turn followed an excessively wet spell. The wet period causes increased growth of vegetation and provides more fuel for fire to spread across a landscape, and the dry period then makes it easier for this vegetation to ignite. Drying of vegetation takes time, and so we most often see wildfires after long dry periods.

According to the Met Office, May 2020 was the sunniest calendar month on record in the UK. This was measured using ‘sunshine duration’, which is the accumulated total of sunshine hours within a given period. The previous record for sunshine duration during a given month in England was at 265 hours, which was recorded in June 1957. This year, May saw 266 hours of sunshine. May 2020 also exceeded the previous record for the month of May by over 70 hours. The spring as a collective exceeded the previous record by 101.2 hours. Clearly, these are extremely unusual figures. Combine this with the fact that much of the Midlands and the South of England experienced approximately 20% or below the average rainfall, and this year’s spring has been historically dry.

Lancashire is a prime example of an area particularly affected by increased sunshine duration during May this year, and this has resulted in recent wildfire activity. Near Bolton Road, Darwen, careless use of a disposable barbecue led to the ignition of a fire on Saturday 30th May. Exacerbated by historically dry conditions, this fire burnt across 5km of moorland.

As a result of climate change, extreme weather patterns are becoming commonplace, and this is only expected to grow more severe over time. Springs and summers are getting longer, drier and warmer. Of the 10 ‘sunniest springs’ the UK has experienced since the Met Office records began, five have occurred since 2003. However, we can not say for certain what this will mean for wildfire activity in the future. Reduced rainfall as a result of climate change could reduce the abundance of available fuels, which could then make it more difficult for wildfires to spread. We may begin to see more frequent, but less intense fires which are characteristic of arid environments. However, if rainfall increases over the colder months, we may see greater vegetation growth and thus more frequent, intense fires.

Due to the wet weather experienced in January and February followed by a dry spring, it is possible that we could see an increase in wildfires this summer. Climate change is unpredictable, but it is likely that we as a country will begin to become more familiar with wildfires over the next few years.

For more information and for maps associated with the May 2020 weather statistics, please go to: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2020/2020-spring-and-may-stats

Dillon Fiolet BSc (Hons) MSc
Environmental Consultant

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