Spain can teach Britain how to tackle wildfire threat, says expat firefighter

The aftermath of a major wildfire in Wennington, east London, during the July heatwave - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
The aftermath of a major wildfire in Wennington, east London, during the July heatwave - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Britain could learn from Spain how to prevent major wildfires, according to a Welsh firefighter with extensive experience in the country.

Nicholas Eley, 47, has been fighting forest fires in Spain for two decades and said the weather in the UK should act as “a wake-up call”.

He believes his future may lie in transferring his skills to Britain as unprecedented summer temperatures increase the risk of major wildfires.

“The fire service in Britain needs to adapt,” he said. “They should research the dangers that are increasing with climate change and take steps such as creating a fire danger rating system, as Spain and other countries have, which helps the fire service prepare resources for times of high risk and also makes the public more aware.”

Mr Eley is the only British helicopter firefighting crew leader in Spain, which is currently battling its worst forest fire season for more than a decade.

Spain has lost 850 square miles of forests to fires this year, while the UK’s record-breaking summer has seen the number of wildfires in England and Wales double last year’s figure to close to 500, according to the National Fire Chiefs Council.

“The fires in Britain will be different to those in Spain, mostly grass or heath fires which are fast-moving, flashy fires which can become what we call ‘interface’ fires affecting suburban areas,” said Mr Eley, noting that many UK gardens include pines and other highly flammable conifer species.

“The UK will need to be more clever about land management, creating more resilient landscapes, thinning forests, clearing debris and using prescribed burning to create a mosaic of natural fire breaks.”

Mr Eley, who leads his seven-man crews into battle with wildfires from their base at Logrono airport in northern Spain, said: “In the helicopter, we get to fires first. As we approach, I analyse the situation, look for our escape points and how we're going to attack.”

He argued that Spain also needed to rethink its approach. Almost all of his team only work in the summer months, but firefighters and some politicians are starting to demand that Spain’s wildfire brigades are kept on all year round to work on forest clearing and prevention.

Wildfires are getting worse because of climate change and the abandonment of traditional forest land use, which has led to mountainsides being covered in thick brush and fallen trees – perfect fuel for flames.

“If anything, we’re too efficient in putting out fires because we're stopping all this brush from being burned as it needs to be, he said. We’re totally inefficient in preventing fires and removing fuel,” he said.

Mr Eley studied to be forestry engineer but decided to volunteer as a firefighter during an exchange visit to New Zealand.

Meeting the woman who is now his wife and the mother of their two teenage children brought him to Spain in 2002, and he quickly started working in helicopter firefighting crews.

“I got hooked,” he said. “I struggled with heat and flying, but suffering is part of the job. I love suffering.”