After the fire service saw its busiest day since the WW2 as UK temperatures hit 40C for the first time, fire chiefs were shocked. “What the hell just happened?”, tweeted deputy chief fire officer for West Yorkshire Dave Walton.
The wildfires had caused “demand for fire engines and firefighters far, far outstripping the numbers that any reasonable person would expect to be available at any one time”, he said.
“Your Fire and Rescue Service staff are heroes – every one of them – but they can’t work miracles. Today was about climate change…”
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) – the membership body for chief fire officers, funded by the Home Office – tweeted: “NFCC chair gives his heartfelt thanks to all fire and rescue services, working tirelessly under difficult conditions. The unprecedented number of calls and incidents put FRSs under severe strain, as they battled to get help to where it was needed most.”
Meanwhile, Tory minister Kit Malthouse MP told parliament that the heat “broke records” and that fire services were “undoubtedly stretched but coped magnificently”.
It’s true that the heatwave broke records and that this was linked to the climate crisis. But what nobody thought to mention was that such extreme weather shouldn’t have come as a surprise, or that the fire service’s capacity has been reduced in recent years.
According to Fire Brigades Union (FBU) national officer Riccardo la Torre, in the wake of the fires, chief fire officers and politicians were “very much peddling a line” by asking, “how could we possibly ever have been prepared?”, and “saying words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘once in a lifetime’.”
La Torre says that the extreme weather has been weaponised by fire service bosses and politicians to distract from the fact that the fire service is on its knees due to over a decade of devastating cuts to funding and resources.
On 19 July, crews attended 1,146 incidents in London alone, which destroyed over 40 houses and shops, including in Wennington, Dagenham and Kenton. The London Fire Brigade reported 16 firefighters injured and two hospitalised. La Torre spent the day fielding “frightening” calls from members – coming in “thick and fast” – reporting injuries and hospitalisations on the job. “Every time the phone rang, I was waiting for the news to be worse,” he says.
La Torre, who was a firefighter for 18 years until 2020, believes the “unprecedented” line has been used to evade responsibility: “If it was one degree lower, it wouldn’t have been the hottest [day] on record, yet we still would have had the hot and dry conditions causing these fires,” he says.
Firefighters and the FBU “have been warning [chief fire officers and politicians] about [the need to prepare for the climate crisis] for years,” he says. And when fire bosses “should have been preparing, instead they just continued pushing through this government’s ideological agenda of cuts.”
Since 2010, one in five UK firefighter jobs have been cut. Many fire stations stand empty or have been redeveloped. There are now 11,500 fewer firefighters available to respond to emergencies, and those who remain have fewer fire engines to work with. Fire service response times have gone up by 46 seconds on average since austerity cuts began.
Walton, who asked “what the hell just happened?” has been deputy chief fire officer for West Yorkshire since 2013, during which time hundreds of firefighter jobs were lost. The NFCC, whose chair offered his “heartfelt thanks” to the fire services, is the membership body for the fire chiefs who implement those cuts – la Torre says it is an “attack dog within the service of delivering government cuts”.
The question that has been ignored in mainstream coverage of the heatwave fires, la Torre says, is: “Would those 11,500 firefighters – and therefore the fire engines and the resources and the equipment that they can crew – have been useful?”
Isaac Steen, a Basildon firefighter who has been in the service for ten years, worked through the heatwave. With reduced staff numbers due to cuts, he says, the fire control room, which responds to calls, was “absolute chaos”, and the brigade going out to fires was “sparse”. This under-resourcing during a highly demanding time made it extremely difficult for workers to extinguish fires effectively and safely.
“There were so many jobs going on at once,” he says.“When we were going to these jobs, on the way, you could see about three or four others that were just on the horizon, wherever you were.”
Since it wasn’t possible to respond to all the fires, firefighters on the ground “were having to make calls” as to which to prioritise.
Working as a firefighter carries inevitable risks to health and safety – but doing the job in a service decimated by cuts, in the context of a climate crisis, is especially dangerous. “The working conditions [during the heatwave] were awful,” says Steen. Fighting raging fires in 40C heat, despite the personal protective equipment, “you can feel your skin burning… you can’t breathe,” he says.
“At the end of the day [you are] covered head-to-toe with toxic fire effluents”, the carcinogenic chemicals emitted during a fire. Under-staffing means firefighters have “to spend so much longer working in those conditions”, with fewer breaks, he says.
Among the health risks faced by firefighters are increased rates of cancer and miscarriage during pregnancy. Cuts to the service can make harm reduction, such as taking breaks and showering in between jobs, more difficult.
Climate change is increasing the severity, duration and frequency of wildfires in the UK. Wildfires – uncontrolled blazes that start in hot and dry rural areas and can spread to urban areas – are some of “the hardest and most dangerous fires to fight,” says la Torre.
This year already, England and Wales have had 442 wildfires, compared to 247 last year. In a few decades’ time, research shows that parts of the UK could be at risk from wildfires during up to four months each year.
“The science is suggesting the conditions we’ve faced are going to become a common occurrence, and we’re seeing exactly that”, says Steen.
Firefighters in the UK are aware of rising fatalities among their colleagues in the US and Australia and he says they fear “this now may well be a reality for us”.
Preparedness is key. “But unfortunately, even if you see a heatwave coming a month in advance, you can’t make up for the fact that you’re critically understaffed and under-resourced,” says Steen.
In a statement to Novara Media, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Mark Hardingham said: “The demand fire and rescue services saw during the heatwave was unprecedented, with fire and rescue services stretched… however services coped remarkably well in the hottest and driest weather seen in 46 years.”
Hardingham says that fire service resources are “stretched”, and that climate change “means fire and rescue services need to be resourced to [meet] current and emerging risk as well as demand.” He says the NFCC runs a National Resilience programme, which “can be called on to deploy fire service assets anywhere across the UK, along with specialist tactical advisers to assist at these large and complex incidents”, and that it is building “wildfire response capacity and capability”.
The NFCC chair doesn’t mention the cuts the fire service has endured – and it seems “resourcing” here refers to reallocating resources rather than increasing them. La Torre says that in “finally” admitting that the climate crisis poses a serious threat, the NFCC “fall short of going against their political masters and calling for more funding” from the government. It’s like “moving the deck chairs around the Titanic”, he says.
“For firefighters,” says la Torre, the climate crisis is “not abstract”, but “very much a workplace issue”. The “phenomenal” efforts of fire control operators and firefighters on the frontlines of the heatwave, he says, should serve as “a stark reminder of what worth and value actually mean, and what we should be funding as a society to face the ever-growing risk and challenge that’s coming our way”.