UK wildfires pose water resilience threat

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UK wildfires are costing water companies tens of millions of pounds and pose a risk to water quality, Utility Week has learned.

The estimated cost of wildfires to UK companies is around £80 million every five years, according to a research team at Manchester University, which has created a new service for monitoring wildfire damage using satellite data with support from the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Speaking to Utility Week, one of the research team’s leaders, Dr Gail Millin-Chalabi, explained how fires which spring up across UK heath and moorland undermine water company efforts to adopt sustainable catchment management approaches, threaten water quality and increase the risk of downstream flooding.

With regards to water quality, Millin-Chalabi said discolouration is a likely outcome of wildfires, because “deep” burning into the soil “destroys the seedbank” and prevents natural re-growth of vegetation, making it easier for soil and minerals to infiltrate the water system.

In addition, “in some parts of the country there are heavy metals that are deposited in the peat, remaining from the industrial revolution. These deposits may also be more likely to get into the water course” as a result of unmanaged wildfires, she said.

Incidents of discoloured or dirty water being distributed to customers carry significant penalties from the Drinking Water Inspectorate for water companies.

Downstream flooding risks are enhanced by wildfires because the absence of vegetation removes a “natural barrier” to surface run off, Millin-Chalabi added.

There is currently little clarity on exactly how many wildfires occur every year in the UK.

Millin-Chalabi said that some sources estimate as many as 70,000 incidents in a year, while a 2015/16 report from Fire and Rescue Services said that it attended over 1,700 callouts in the period.

“In all honesty, we currently have a poor handle on just how many wildfires there are in the UK as there isn’t a national monitoring tool,” said Millin-Challabi, whose team hopes to improve awareness and management of wildfires, and the damage they cause, via its new satellite data application called Envirosar.

The application was recently awarded a £5,000 grant to boost commercial development after winning first place in the Copernicus Masters Sustainable Living Challenge.

The competition recognises innovative ideas for the application of satellite earth observation data which can help overcome major sustainability challenges.

As climate change increases weather extremes, Millin-Chalabi warned that the resilience threats posed by UK wildfires are likely to grow.

“If we are going to be getting hotter and drier summer that will increase the risk of wildfires across the country.”

She added, however, that the UK’s wildfire “season” is earlier in the year than some might expect – “It tends to be around March to May. The reason for that is that we get a green-up of our vegetation in May time and that increases what we call the fuel moisture content. So, it takes much more heat for vegetation to combust because it has more moisture in it.”

The Envirosar team is already in talks with United Utilities and Yorkshire Water to discuss how satellite data services for wildfire monitoring might help them improve catchment management and resilience.

As Envirsar progresses with the “customer validation” stage of its commercial start-up, it hopes to talk to more water companies and other utilities including owners and operators of energy generation sites, especially wind farms.