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The scene after a blaze in the village of Wennington, east London after temperatures topped 40C in the UK for the first time ever, as the sweltering heat fuelled fires and widespread transport disruption. PA

Fire chief Last week we witnessed the arrival of climate change in Britain

Dave Walton of Yorkshire Fire and Rescue describes the extreme conditions they faced last week and warns that it’s just the beginning.

MY NAME IS Dave Walton. I am a professional fire officer and have been for over 37 years. I’m at that stage in my career where nothing much comes at me as new; most things are a rehash of days gone by.

However, on 19 July 2022, I experienced and saw fire conditions in England, the likes of which I have never seen before other than in news reports from the USA and Southern Europe. I believe in climate change, I believe the science, but I’ve just seen something that I thought was still the stuff of future predictions. Let me explain…

I serve the communities of West Yorkshire as their Deputy Chief Fire Officer. Amongst other things I am responsible for ensuring that we can deliver an effective firefighting capability to a diverse population of circa 2.4 million people who live in cities such as Leeds and Bradford, and towns, villages and rural landscapes that stretch from the Peak District to the Yorkshire Dales and are bounded by the South Pennines and the Vale of York.

Tough new reality

The effects of climate change are nothing new to the Fire and Rescue Service – we deal with extremes of weather in all the varieties. We train and equip for wildfire and wide area flooding, and our staff are well versed in what to do.

We saw the recent Level 4 heatwave warning when it was published, and we responded to it and upped our response capability as anyone would expect us to.

We are a large metropolitan service, the fourth largest in England, and we are used to being busy and we have the capability to flex our resources in a way that others may not.

The second day of the red weather warning started very calmly. It was uncomfortably hot and the whole of West Yorkshire was tinderbox dry. Things started to get interesting, shall we say, at about lunchtime. One of our officers, who was monitoring the situation, alerted me to how busy the service was getting.

MM2022-07-09 (15)(1) Dave Walton Dave Walton

I had the rolling news channels on and became aware of what was happening in London where field fires were spreading to houses. My next phone call alerted me to the fact that the number of available fire engines in West Yorkshire was getting lower and lower as more and more incidents were reported. I made my way to our 999/112 fire control centre to see for myself.

‘No respite’

The moment I walked through the door it was clear from the level of activity that things were far from normal. The room was bristling with energy and activity, everyone in there had a single-minded focus on the many 999 calls that they were dealing with, as soon as one call was done, another one came in. This was to be the pattern for eight solid hours. No respite, no breaks, just a single-minded focus to protect our county.

We watched the news feeds on TV – we could only imagine what our crews on the ground were going through. We wanted to reach into the apocalyptic scenes on screen and help them out.

The information relayed back told me that whilst we hadn’t lost any houses to fire, we’d come close, and fires were burning in all corners of the county. This pattern kept repeating on and on until dusk finally gave us some respite.

At this point, convention suggests that I tell you that we weren’t lucky because we’d trained well and were equipped well – that we’d made our own luck. But I’ll record here and now that to some extent we were lucky. It was luck that helped us battle those fires that were spreading in sufficient time to prevent them from making the jump from the rural environment to the urban one, and lucky that no one lost their home or property in West Yorkshire.

As you may have seen, our colleagues in the London Fire Service did not have as much luck that day, as they faced into the busiest day since World War II. Dozens of properties were destroyed in those fires.

Climate change is real, and it’s here

This was the day that climate change became real for so many people. Deny it all you want but open your eyes and listen to the tales of 19 July 2022 in Britain – mark it in your diary because that day was the game changer.

The next similar day may be next month, it may be next year, but be under no illusion – it’s coming, and you’d better be prepared.

I pose you the rhetorical question about how prepared you are in Ireland? How ready are your emergency services for incidents like this? What would you do when you have no more fire engines to send? How would your community cope with such destruction?

I’ll end by asking you the question that you must answer, and you must answer it now. Do you accept that climate change is happening? If you do, what are you doing about it and how are you preparing for days like 19 July? If you don’t, what more evidence do you need?

This wasn’t just a hot summer day – this was a brutal punch in the face with a red-hot fist, and it is the first round of a long fight.

Dave Walton is Deputy Chief Fire Officer/Director of Service Delivery with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue in the UK.

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