The outbreak of hundreds of fires amid record temperatures has been labelled a “wake-up call” on climate change, as the UK counts the cost of the heatwave.
As temperatures climbed above 40C for the first time ever on Tuesday, major fire incidents were declared in London, Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and South Yorkshire amid the tinder-dry conditions.
London Fire Brigade (LFB) had its busiest day since the Second World War as record temperatures led to hundreds of fires across the capital, with the service taking 2,670 calls.
Yesterday was the Brigade's busiest day since World War II as unprecedented hot weather meant firefighters dealt with more than 1,146 incidents across #London and Control took 2,670 calls. Heroic action taken by firefighters meant there were no fatalities. https://t.co/UytCtH6ggx pic.twitter.com/KFxOWjtsFt
— London Fire Brigade (@LondonFire) July 20, 2022
There were no deaths but more than 40 houses and shops were destroyed after a number of significant grass fires spread to nearby buildings, including in Wennington, Dagenham and Kenton, LFB said.
Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith said: “Yesterday’s fires are another example of how we are increasingly being challenged by new extremes of weather as our climate changes, and we’re developing long-term strategies to deal with more incidents like this in the future.”
Bosses at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, which came close to calling a major incident, warned the situation across the country on Tuesday would not be a one-off and the UK needed to “get prepared”.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton said: “Yesterday was a game changer and took us to a completely new level. Fires were spreading much more quickly than ever before.”
This is very different position we are in now compared to a one-off event nearly 50 years ago, and we need to see this as a wake-up call
He said that usually when a big fire happened, it was possible to call on neighbouring services to help, but on Tuesday “everyone was busy and completely stacked out”.
“The predictions are we will get heatwaves like this much more regularly, even as much as every three years, due to climate change.
“This is very different position we are in now compared to a one-off event nearly 50 years ago, and we need to see this as a wake-up call.
“We need to learn how we get prepared as a country for this and how we rethink the resource we have or need, going forward, so we are ready for these, so homes, property and ultimately people’s lives are saved,” he warned.
In South Yorkshire, there were serious blazes in Barnsley and Clayton, while firefighters in Norfolk were called to more than 80 incidents on Tuesday.
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service said it was called to more than 60 incidents, 38 of which were fires in the open, describing the situation as “unprecedented”.
The UK recorded a new provisional high temperature of 40.3C in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, on Tuesday, outstripping the previous record set in Cambridge in 2019 of 38.7.
There were also provisional records for Scotland – 35.1C at Floors Castle in Roxburghshire on Tuesday – and Wales, where a high of 37.1C was recorded at Hawarden, Clwyd, on Monday.
Heatwaves are being made more intense, frequent and longer by climate change, and scientists said it would be “virtually impossible” for the UK to have experienced temperatures reaching 40C without human-driven global warming.
This week's exceptional #heatwave brought record breaking temperature across the UK 🌡️
Here's a round up of the latest figures 👇
Quality control of these records is currently being carried out and they will be confirmed in due course pic.twitter.com/wOAmxgOzY6
— Met Office (@metoffice) July 20, 2022
Scientists also warn that climate change is increasing fire danger across the UK, and people need to be prepared for it.
Increasing heatwaves raise health risks, with high temperatures putting the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions and children particularly at risk of serious illness or death, and potentially affecting the population more widely.
Record high overnight temperatures were also seen during the heatwave, which puts further stress on people’s health as their bodies are not able to recover from the hot days with cooler nights.
London Ambulance Service said it had taken the equivalent of a call every 13 seconds during the two days of extreme heat, with a 10-fold increase in incidents related to heat exposure compared with last week, and an 8% increase in people fainting.
NHS bosses have warned that the health service’s “crumbling” buildings are not fit to adapt to the heatwave, which saw hospitals forced to scale back the number of planned operations and install cooling units and try to cool down IT server rooms.
A spokesperson for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said on Wednesday that it had experienced significant disruption of its IT systems due to Tuesday’s heat, which meant it had been forced to postpone some operations and appointments.
On the railways, there was ongoing disruption on Wednesday, with dozens of trains cancelled or delayed across England because of problems caused by the extreme heat.
There is potentially no respite from the extreme weather, with a yellow warning for thunderstorms in place across a large swathe of England from noon to 10pm on Wednesday.
The Met Office said that while many places will only see relatively small amounts of rain, some slow-moving torrential downpours are possible.
Where these occur there could be 20-30mm (0.8-1.1 inches) of rain in an hour and in some spots 50mm (2 inches) in three hours.