The bucolic countryside surrounding Manchester has been turned into a fiery inferno. The Saddleworth Moor fire erupted on Sunday night as hot, dry weather fanned the flames across the fields and peatlands. The blaze also has sent smoke streaming into Manchester, forcing school closures and evacuations.
This is a view of the climate future we’re in for. The weather that’s fueled the flames is likely to become more common in the future, raising the risk of wildfire conditions in the rolling hills and pastures of central England.
Firefighters are battling the flames and the army is on standby to provide assistance. The front of the flames spans 3.7 miles (6 kilometers), burning in hilly terrain and through tangles of trees, shrubs, and grassland. That’s made it hard to get a handle on, particularly in the hot, sunny conditions firefighters are working in. Temperatures have been in the high 80s (or high 20s/low 30s if you like Celsius) over the past few days and will remain in that range until a break this weekend.
“We haven’t had anything of this scale in living memory, never had to evacuate people or close schools,” Jonathan Reynolds, a local member of Parliament told the BBC. He also compared the scene to Mordor in Lord of the Rings, particularly as the moon rose blood-red over the hillsides ablaze.
The winds have blown smoke and ash have settled over the Manchester metro area, home to nearly 2.8 million. At least one resident rocking a gas mask on her shopping trip in what is the most UK punk scene ever. The clogged air harkens back to 19th century Manchester when it was the hub of the Industrial Revolution.
Beyond making for bizarre post-apocalyptic photos, the thick smoke poses a major public health hazard. Officials warning local residents to stay indoors and keep any vents to the outside world closed according to the Guardian.
The initial spark that ignited the fire is under investigation, but the background conditions certainly helped it spread. Both April and May were warmer and drier than normal everywhere across England. That left the unruly forest and grasslands dried out and ready to burn. The pattern has continued into June.
Mark Parrington, a fire expert with European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, told Earther the agency’s forecasts “have shown high fire danger across the British Isles for the last couple of days, with possible ‘very high’ fire danger in the coming days.”
Indeed, the Saddleworth Moor fire is likely one of a handful of other fires burning across the United Kingdom according to satellite estimates. Fires of this magnitude are rare but not unheard of for the area. Thomas Smith, a geographer at the London School of Economics, told Earther the last time conditions were this ripe for explosive fires was in late spring 2011 when numerous fires sparked up in Ireland and the United Kingdom. The June timing is a bit odd as most fires in the area occur from April-May or July-August.
So of course here’s the million-dollar question: Is this burning countryside due to the impact of climate change? The answer is one that’s playing out in almost every corner of the world. Climate change is making these conditions more common.
Smith said it’s not really possible to say this single fire is caused by climate change, but “records show that our summers are getting warmer and are projected to be both warmer and drier. This means that we can only expect the risk of wildfires to increase in the UK.”
Research published in 2010 shows that the fire season could change by century’s end. Wetter winters will likely make the spring fire season less flammable, but the hot, dry summers mean late summer fires could be more common and a new fall fire season could emerge.
“The danger of summer wildfires will become far more severe after 2070,” the authors wrote. “It is possible that fire-free summer days will be the exception rather than the rule by the last 30 yr of this century under the worst-case high emissions scenario.”
That makes the Saddleworth Fire a crystal ball, and the view is worrisome.