It’s never too early to start setting wildfire records in our warming world. Though it’s not even the end of April, the UK has already seen more major wildfires this year than in any previous year. It takes the title from [checks notes] last year.
The latest rash of fires hit over Easter weekend. According to the Independent, all four nations that fall under the UK had their warmest Easter on record. That helped fan flames in Yorkshire and parts of Scotland, at least some of which were likely started by humans. As of Wednesday, the UK has seen 105 fires greater than 62 acres, the threshold for what the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) labels as major fires. The blazes come two months after a series of February conflagrations that were again driven by record-setting warm weather and a dry winter.
That’s well above the record of 79 set in 2018, and fires this year have burned more 42,000 acres, well above the annual average. Spring fires aren’t totally abnormal when moorlands are largely bare and leaf litter in forests has dried out before new buds sprout. But the scale and scope is certainly notable.
And the UK is hardly alone. Romania has seen nearly seven times its annual average area burned, according to the EFFIS data while Spain and France have seen an above number of fires. In Norway, police evacuated the small community Sokndal on Wednesday as fires raged out of control, fanned by strong winds.
If you have a creeping sense of deja vu, it makes sense. This feels like a near-carbon copy of last year when wildfires ravaged nearly every corner of Europe from the UK to Scandinavia (to say nothing of the globe at large) on the back of a hot, dry summer. Research into the extended heat wave shows that climate change made it twice as likely. No attribution analysis has been done on the recent warm spells in northern Europe, but they clearly fit a pattern.
“I would argue that those statistics suggest that we are already experiencing climate change and that it has already led to increasing wildfire risk,” Thomas Smith, a geographer at the London School of Economics, told New Scientist in response to this spring’s fire tally in the UK.
The latest blazes are happening against a backdrop of climate protests in the UK, which have blockading parts of London for the last week and a half. One of the explicit goals of the protests being led by Extinction Rebellion is to get the government to declare a climate emergency, something the minority Labour Party has already endorsed. The fires are yet another alarm bell ringing.