Skip to main content

Developed and maintained
by the NFCC

Hazard
Environmental impact

Hazard Knowledge

Guidance on environmental impacts can be found in the Environment Agency and DCLG environmental handbook and National Operational Guidance: Environmental protection.

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

Fire has had 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.

However, wildfires have the potential to pollute air, water and land. They can 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 the production of food.

The environmental impact of wildfires can be direct and/or indirect. An example of a direct impact could include the loss of flora and fauna of high ecological value during a wildfire. An indirect impact may occur some hours, days or weeks after the fire. For example, soil exposed by surface vegetation being removed by the fire could be eroded by later heavy rainfall.

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 and/or statutory bodies.

Wildfires can have an impact on a range of ecological assets. Some of the semi-natural habitats and species that can be affected by wildfire include:

  • Bracken and scrub
  • Dwarf shrub heath
  • Grasslands
  • Arable land
  • Fen and bog
  • Broadleaved, mixed and coniferous woodland

Some habitats that could be impacted by wildfires 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 of 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:

 

Important ecological and heritage assets may have designations such as:

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.

This should also be considered when responding to landscapes that have 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.