The London Fire Brigade has issued an urgent public warning for people to take greater care to avoid the risk of starting grass fires during the current heatwave.
An amber warning for extreme heat between today and Sunday across parts of the country including London has been issued by the Met Office.
A lack of rainfall in July and August means grass is extremely dry and the Met Office’s Fire Severity Index shows an exceptional risk in London from tomorrow.
London Fire Brigade’s control room has mobilised thousands of firefighters to 340 grass, rubbish and open land fires during the first week of August – an eightfold increase on the 42 during the same week last year.
Croydon has already had a series of fires requiring the attendance of emergency services, including a blaze in the Addington Hills last month, and then on Tuesday, an incident at a waste transfer centre on Featherbed Lane, which needed four fire engines and 25 firefighters to bring under control.
There were no reports of any injuries, after 16½ tons of general waste caught light. The fire brigade had the blaze under control inside an hour. The cause of the fire is now under investigation.
In Norbury in June, half-a-dozen householders had what appeared to be a lucky escape after they were evacuated when a playing field caught fire. There, the worst damage was to a couple of garden sheds – but more recently, when a similar grass fire took hold in Wennington, near Romford in Essex, the blaze rapidly spread and destroyed a row of houses, leaving residents shocked, and homeless.
It is this kind of out-of-control conflagration the LFB is seeking to avoid now.
As it issued its warning this morning, the LFB said, “Resources are in place for the heatwave, but firefighters are again asking people to take action during the dry weather to prevent fires from happening in the first place.”
Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith said, “This summer has seen an unprecedented long, dry spell with high temperatures so the grass in London is tinderbox dry and the smallest of sparks can start a blaze which could cause devastation.
“Despite our continued warning over the last few weeks, we know there are still people who are barbecuing in parks, dropping cigarettes out of car windows and leaving rubbish lying around.
“We really need to prevent a repeat of the situation we saw on July 19, when homes, shops, garages, outbuildings and vehicles were destroyed across London in a number of significant fires.
“So please – we are asking Londoners to help us protect the city we all love by doing everything you can to prevent further grass fires. Please don’t barbecue in open spaces or balconies, throw your rubbish away safely and put your cigarettes out properly.”
The number of calls that London Fire Brigade’s control room officers have taken has also significantly increased in recent weeks. Between July 18 and August 7 this year, 18,603 calls were taken, compared to 12,102 calls in the same period last year.
Grass fire prevention
- Don’t drop cigarettes or anything that is burning on dry ground
- Don’t drop cigarettes out of car windows – they may land on dry grass by the roadside
- Don’t have barbecues in parks and public spaces
- Do not barbecue on balconies, the wind may carry smouldering ash towards nearby grassland.
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One thing that can make a big difference to the susceptibility of grassland to fire is whether the “grass” is just grass, or if it contains a high proportion of other “wild flowers” (what some peiople call “weeds” . Let’s call them “wild-plants”.
Areas that used to be close-mown grass, mown for decades, have only a small proportion of wild plants. They are more like 95% grass. Often, only a few species of grass.
If left to grow to become long these areas are now golden in colour, about a foot or more high, with lost of seed heads, and are tinder dry — like a standing crop of dry hay.
Conversely, areas that have a high component of wild plants are much greener, even after months of drought. Leaves of many wild plants are still very green green –eg wild plantain, some vetches, and others like the thistle family. The more the wild plant component, the greener the area remains.
My guess is that these areas will be less prone to burn than the 95% grass areas..
It emphasises another benefit of having diversity of plant life, the main reason being having wild flowers to give bees and other pollinatirs nectar.
In today’s stripped down world of cash-and staff-stripped parks departments (if they even exist) , there is a need for simple ways of seeding existing grasslands with wildflowers.
It can be done, using yellow rattle –a plant that reduces the density of grasses, allowing other wild plants to come in. But they can’t come in, at least, not quickly, unless there is a local and diverse seed source, which just does not exist except at places like Farthing Downs and Happy Valley.
I never thought of reduced fire risk as a benefit of adding wild flowers to grasslands, but hey, come the time, come the bright ideas !
Just need someone like the National Trust and the County Wildlife Trusts to test this (in a controlled manner, of course!)