Wildfire in forest

New system needed to combat rising wildfire threat, academic warns

The increased threat of wildfires in the UK has hastened the need for a national Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS)a University of Manchester expert has argued. 

Last July, multiple Fire and Rescue Services across the country declared major incidents with London Fire Brigade experiencing its busiest single day since the Second World War. 

In an article published by the University’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester, Dr Gareth Clay warns that such events may be signals of times to come.  

He writes: “The impact of climate change suggests we will likely see an increase in the number of days above critical ‘fire danger’ thresholds, which are set by a fire weather index to define danger, with the potential for the wildfire season to extend into autumn. 

For many decades, the United States, Canada and Australia have had Fire Danger Rating Systems in place which assess fuel and weather conditions to provide estimates about potential fire behaviour under specific conditions. This information is used by land managers, planners and emergency services to inform decision making.    

England and Wales rely on the Met Office Fire Severity Index (MOFSI) which, Dr Clay explains, “gives an indication of fire severity based only on meteorological data and does not fully account for the varied fuel types we see across the UK.  

He continues: “MOFSI does not always work effectively. For example, during the dry summer of 2018, in some regions the indices did not rise sufficiently to trigger land closures in areas that went on to experience severe wildfire. This insensitivity demonstrates that other tools are required to properly forewarn responders, landowners, and government agencies about likely fire behaviour. 

Dr Clay, a Reader in Physical Geography, reveals that researchers at The University of Manchester, in partnership with other UK universities, are leading a major project to develop new insights into the location and condition of important fuels, “seeing how they react to different weather conditions throughout the year and quantifying how flammable these fuel types are, which will ultimately allow for a tailored UK fire behaviour model to be produced.”   

He writes: “The next step in this journey will be to take the findings from our research and work with partners to develop an operational FDRS in the coming years. Thesepartners include government departments, like the Home Office, Cabinet Office, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Met Office, wildfire forums across the UK and landowners and managers. 

This system would allow for management decisions to be taken in advance of heightened fire conditions, such as stepping up additional Fire and Rescue Service crews, modifying land management practices when the danger is high, or increased public-facing messages, including warning signs at popular recreation spots. 

He adds: “Who ultimately co-ordinates a future system is not yet clear, however leadership from government is required.” 


Dr Clay’s article, Spreading like wildfire: the need for a UK Fire Danger Rating System isavailable to read on the Policy@Manchester website