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Hazard
Environmental impact of wildfires

Hazard Knowledge

Wildfires can have positive or negative impacts on the environment. The potential environmental impact is an important factor when planning how to deal with wildfires. 

Fire has a significant role in creating landscapes, particularly heathlands. Some flora (plants) and fauna (animals) depend on wildfires to sustain specific species and habitats. Positive impacts of wildfire are usually limited but can include the removal of unwanted species from sites, changes in the structure of vegetation that will restrict future incidents and an increase in knowledge of effective firefighting tactics.

As with most fires, wildfires have the potential to pollute the air, water and land. Wildfires may also contribute to climate change by releasing carbon stored in vegetation and peat soils. There may be other impacts on ecological assets, air quality, public health, heritage assets, flora and fauna, tourism and recreation, and food production.

Direct environmental impact, caused during a wildfire, could include: 

  • Fire damage to flora and fauna, which could be of high ecological value  
  • The impact on flora and fauna through the use of firefighting media including: 
    • Seawater 
    • Firefighting foam and additives 

Indirect environmental impact, occurring some time after a wildfire, could include: 

  • Increased soil run-off due to loss of vegetation 
  • Soil dislodged by firefighting activity 

Environmental impacts may only affect the immediate area that is burnt by the wildfire, or may affect a much larger area, such as the surrounding landscape and communities. Wildfires burning in peat and soil in remote upland areas may contaminate water supplies for urban areas. Defining the boundaries of the environmental impact may require the advice of specialists or statutory bodies.

Wildfires can have an impact on a range of ecological assets, and some habitats require a greater level of understanding. They may contain a variety of species of wild plants, birds and animals, some of which may be protected or have a ‘priority species’ status. Further information can be found on the website of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee

Heritage assets may also be affected by wildfires. This covers a broad range of buildings, structures and sites. Further information can be found at websites such as:

Historic England

Historic Scotland

Historic Wales

Northern Ireland Environment Agency

UNESCO World Heritage Convention

Important ecological and heritage assets may have designations such as:

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) (Northern Ireland)

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)

Special Protection Areas (SPA)

Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAM)

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (England, Wales, Northern Ireland)

National Scenic Areas (Scotland)

Ramsar sites

The potential negative impact on these assets should be taken into account when fire and rescue services make decisions on selecting, using, limiting and modifying firefighting tactics.

If a wildfire occurs in an area that has been affected by past uses, such as heavy industry, mining or quarrying, or current uses such as oil and gas extraction or production of agricultural fertilisers, this should be taken into account when developing the tactical plan