Drought looms in south-west as parts of UK face ‘exceptional’ wildfire risk

Amid the warnings about the heat, health dangers and risk of wildfires, a new and ominous alert could soon be added to the list - Ian Woods reports

A drought is likely to be declared for south-western parts of England, ITV News understands, as warnings over the risk of severe fires spreading ratchet up.

The new status is believed to be a precaution, with rain forecast next week, prompting action by agencies and water companies to manage water resources and protect the environment.

The National Drought Group – made up of government and agency officials, water companies and other groups such as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) – is set to meet on Friday to discuss the prolonged dry weather.

It comes as temperatures are set to climb to as high as 34C on Thursday and up to a peak of 36C over the weekend in the areas covered by an amber warning for extreme heat issued by the Met Office for much of England and Wales.

A fire burned through crops at a field in Suffolk

Outside the warning area, in northern England and Scotland, temperatures are expected to be in the high 20s or even low 30s in some spots.

The vulnerable are likely to experience adverse health effects and the wider population could also be affected.

Delays to travel are also possible and there is an increased risk of water accidents and fires as more people head to tourist spots.

There is also a heat health alert in place from the UK Health Security Agency, with experts advising people to look out for those who are older or with existing health conditions, as well as young children.

A view of the low water levels at the United Utilities, Woodhead Reservoir, in Derbyshire. Credit: PA

Temperatures on Wednesday reached 31.8C at Wiggonholt, West Sussex, and Monmouthshire, Wales, while Scotland saw the thermometer rise to 28.8C at Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, and Northern Ireland reached 28.1C at Stormont Castle, County Down.

The Met Office said there could be a “thundery breakdown” to the hot weather on Monday, although it is so far uncertain which areas could see rain.

The latest heatwave comes on top of months of low rainfall, leaving the countryside, parks and gardens parched and at risk of wildfire.

The Met Office’s fire severity index (FSI), an assessment of how severe a fire could become if one were to start, is very high for most of England and Wales, and will reach “exceptional” – the highest level – for a swathe of England stretching to the border with Wales by the weekend.

ITV Weather Presenter Alex Beresford explains why a drought alert could be declared in parts of south-west England

‘Phenomenal’ firefighters ‘unprepared’

Riccardo la Torre, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union, said firefighters are making “phenomenal” efforts to deal with the outbreak of summer fires, claiming fire services were unprepared for the crisis.

He said: “We have been warning for years about the impact of cutting jobs and taking fire engines out of service, but it has fallen on deaf ears as far as the government and chief fire officers are concerned.

“They have chosen to press ahead with their obsession on cutting jobs. There are 11,500 fewer firefighters than in 2010. Even if we had the same numbers now, it is an almost impossible task to keep up with all the fires. Conditions are absolutely brutal.

“On the hottest days in London there are fire engines standing idle because there are not enough firefighters to crew them.”

London Fire Brigade dealing with the aftermath of a grass fire in Rainham, east London. Credit: PA

In the capital, where record-breaking heat in July prompted a number of devastating blazes, fire chiefs are urging people not to barbecue in open spaces or balconies, to put out their cigarettes properly and dispose of rubbish correctly.

London Fire Brigade said its control room had sent firefighters to deal with 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.

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The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has issued a “very high” risk of wildfires alert across southern and eastern Scotland.

Bruce Farquharson, deputy assistant chief officer with SFRS, urged people to “exercise the utmost caution and avoid lighting fires outdoors”.

Will there be more hosepipe bans?

In the dry conditions, the latest hosepipe ban comes into force on Friday, for households in Kent and Sussex, to curb water use.

Southern Water has implemented a hosepipe ban for customers in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and Thames Water, which supplies 15 million customers in London and the Thames Valley, has said it will bring in one in the coming weeks.

Conservationists are calling for an England-wide ban on using hosepipes to protect struggling wildlife and rivers which are at exceptionally low levels in parts of the country.

Climate change is making heatwaves more intense, frequent and likely, with last month’s record temperatures made at least 10 times more likely because of global warming and “virtually impossible” without it, research shows.

Scientists also warn the likelihood of droughts occurring is becoming higher due to climate change, which is driven by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities.

So when will it rain?

Met Office meteorologist Marco Petagna said that rain could be on the horizon early next week.

“There are signs that we could get some rain next week, but details at the moment are uncertain,” he said.

He added that the UK needs “a few weeks” of light rain to water the ground.

“What we really need is a few weeks of light rain to soak into the ground,” he said.

“Thunderstorms are more likely to cause some flooding issues because the ground is hard the water can’t sink in.”