Cambridgeshire’s chief fire officer warns extreme weather puts immediate emergency response at risk
Another day, another huge field fire in Cambridgeshire.
As more than 50 firefighters battled a huge blaze in Haddenham, the latest to break out amid the desperately dry conditions, it was another reminder of what fire services can increasingly expect to face as climate change tightens its grip.
About 200 acres of farmland, including bales, hedgerow and crops, was affected in the fire on Saturday afternoon, which required the attention of crews from Cottenham, Ely, Cambridge, Littleport, Chatteris, March, Sawtry, Wisbech, the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade, Stanground, Dogsthorpe and the south roaming fire engine, along with the water carrier from Ramsey and a crew from Wickhambrook in Suffolk. They were called at 4.12pm and were on site for around four hours.
Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “Firefighters worked tremendously hard throughout the afternoon to get the fire under control. They began leaving the scene at around 8pm and will be maintaining a regular presence to make sure the area is safe. ”
With so little rain falling in July, the ground is exceptionally dry, and just one spark can create a fire that soon runs out of control.
And as our summers become hotter and drier, this is a sign of what is to come.
The county’s chief fire officer has admitted he is concerned that increasing demands placed on the service as extreme weather becomes more commonplace could lead to it being unable to provide an immediate response to every emergency.
Chris Strickland was speaking in the wake of July’s record-breaking heatwave, during which Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service call handlers dealt with nearly 800 calls - including 300 between 2pm and 5pm on Tuesday, July 19, when they were assisting other services.
As multiple field fires broke out amid the extreme heat, fire engines were sent to 92 incidents in Cambridgeshire that day - the highest number since at least 2009, when the service’s current recording system was implemented. On an average July day, the service would expect to attend 25.
It meant that virtually all its fire appliances were out at the same time.
Mr Strickland said the service was “pushed to the very limit”.
“For long periods in the afternoon, we had almost every available fire engine committed to an incident, which is unprecedented for us,” he explained.
“Our combined fire control was under immense pressure throughout the two days, dealing with many calls for both Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, with both counties having significant fires.
“At one stage, the duty call handlers were providing mobilising support for other fire services across the country due to unprecedented demand elsewhere. They were not only dealing with emergencies from Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, but also from London, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire.
And he warned: “Having nearly every available fire engine committed to an incident is a situation that concerns me as we reached a stage where we may have struggled to provide an immediate service to someone in an emergency or at the very least taken longer to get there,” he warned.
“We often rely on other services to assist us during big incidents, much like our crews did over the weekend with the large fire on the Essex border. However when all services are being stretched like this, we can’t always rely on each other.
“Widespread events like the extreme weather pushes every service to the limits, as we saw on Tuesday with our call handlers having to provide support to some of the larger services in the country.
“Our staff can hold their heads high as they’ve all stepped up to the challenges from the extreme heatwave and I am very proud of everyone in the service for their hard work.”
But the heatwave raises questions over how fire services will need to be equipped as climate change makes extremes of heat, as well as flooding, more frequent.
The temperature officially reached 39.9C at Cambridge University Botanic Garden on Tuesday, July 19while a new national record of 40.3C was set in Coningsby, Lincolnshire.
Mr Strickland added: “In times like these I am so proud of the people we have. Everyone has demonstrated their passion for serving the community and giving their best, but also being there to help each other.
“We had our officers set up our major incident command room to co-ordinate our crews and ensure we could relieve and rotate them around to make sure they were fit and well.
“They were also checking on the welfare of our control staff and worked with support staff to provide refreshments, as they literally could not leave their desks at some points of the day.
“Our communication team was also on hand to ensure we were not only informing the public of the key incidents, but also sending key safety messages to try and reduce the amount of incidents happening. Everyone pitched in together to make sure we were providing the best level of service we could.
“It’s also really heartening to see residents interacting with us and sending us their praise and thanks.
“We’ve had more than 600 comments across our social media channels from people appreciating the hard work of the crews out at incidents and our call handlers in our combined fire control.
“They clearly recognise the conditions we’ve been working in and it means a lot to us that people take the time to show us their support.”
On-call staff proved vital to the response.
Mr Strickland said: “As a service that relies heavily on part time firefighters who juggle their day jobs to support us, we always struggle with appliance availability during the day, sometimes having as few as eight on-call appliances available on any weekday.
“However, in the lead up to the extreme weather many of our on-call staff responded to our requests for support and we were able to increase our on-call availability to between 12 and 20 appliances throughout both days.
“Many of our on-call staff will have taken time off from their day jobs, or moved work around if they’re self-employed, to make themselves available to respond to emergencies knowing their community needed them.”
The Fire Brigades Union, however, will want to see the appreciation translated into a better pay offer, after describing the two per cent on the table for firefighters as “utterly inadequate”. It rejected the offer and, days before one of the busiest days ever for fire services nationwide, announced that it was developing a campaign for decent pay that could include preparing for strike action.
Calls for further investment in fire services to ensure they are fit for a future in which extreme weather becomes more common are sure to follow.