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Should we be Worried about Wildfires?

Should we be worried about wildfires?                                                                                         June 2023

           The first and most obvious answer is ‘climate change’, which is likely to make summers drier and warmer, with more evaporation from vegetation.  But outdoor blazes usually occur in Scotland in spring, due to heather and grass drying out after winter.  Dehydrated vegetation is particularly likely after periods of less rainfall plus high pressure systems.

            Another factor is human activity like agriculture expanding into rainforest areas, and people exploring the countryside.  Last August saw four times the Scottish summer average of wildfires, and the recent fires came extremely close to houses at Daviot village near Inverness.  Some residents were evacuated as a precaution, and others had to keep windows shut to prevent smoke inhalation.  Damage to overhead powerlines left properties without power.

          The Daviot fire stretched over a mile from Craggie to Moy, and one at Cannich, 30 miles from Daviot, covered 30 square miles. The April wildfire south of Glenuig in Lochaber is the second largest on record, devastating 3,500 hectares, scorching much of the hillside at Kinloch Moidart and going near to the Glenuig Community Shop and history hut. Only the May 2019 fire between Melvich and Strathy in Sutherland claimed more land, an area of 5,430 hectares.  Moray also saw a huge wildfire in 2019, claiming 2,718 hectares.

           The current system used by Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFARS) to calculate risk examines rainfall but the James Hutton Institute showed that the Canadian fire Weather Index System used by SFARS can miss risk factors which are important in Scotland, as it does not cover ‘fuel structures’ or vegetation more likely to be a factor in Scotland due to the heather moorlands.   Dr Jason Owen said that the Canadian system works well for forests, but not for wildfires in shrubland, such as Scotland, where drier ground and drier plants lead to easier ignition.  There must be modelling of where plant biomass is in Scotland by geographical area and by species.

            All agree that human activity needs to be informed more by safety, by people camping safely and putting fires and barbecues out properly, as human carelessness and activity is the leading contributor to wildfires.

            Dr Thomas Smith of London School of Economics is working on a UK Fire Danger Rating System to create a system more suited do UK and especially Scottish conditions like the widespread prevalence of heather in Scotland.  Heather is difficult to predict as it is like a miniature tree with live vegetation on top, but is dry inside.  Moss is also difficult to model as it is moist on the bottom but dries out completely in early spring.

            The drying and greening-up of heather results in the high number of wildfires in Scotland in the spring.  The project is looking to use satellite imagery to gauge fuel moisture and changes in the heather and moss more accurately. They are considering the limited us of muirburn, which although it would release CO2, the equivalent amount would be sequestered in 3-8 years by regrowth.

            Dr Smith even points to California as an example of the wrong type of forest management, saying limited muirburn would have prevented the forests growing as dense as they have with disastrous effects.  And land management by either increased grazing or increased muirburn is needed here to keep the heather in check.

No Just Transition for Torry?

            Lesley Riddoch recently highlighted the contradictions in the government’s position on a Just Transition.  Making Aberdeen the ‘renewable energy capital of the world’ with and Energy Transition Zone worth nearly £70 million has been hailed as a triumph, but has taken land from St Fittick’s Community Park in Torry to accommodate the zone.

            Torry is one of Scotland’s 500 most deprived neighbourhoods, with a life expectancy 12 years shorter than in the millionaire Aberdeen suburbs of Blacktop, Kingswells and Fairley, which house 240 millionaires, second only to Edinburgh’s 270.

            Torry fishing village was demolished in 1971 to make way for oil developments.  A sewage treatment plant came in 2002 plus two landfill sites for toxic waste, and a new industrial harbour was approved by the council in 2016, plus an incinerator.  Gradually it has become encircled.

            St Fitticks was rezoned for development as an industrial site in 2021, but Torry feels it has been overlooked.  Their last hope was dashed when the Scottish government declined to overturn Aberdeen’s Development Plan.  Torry residents point out that richer people can travel to find a green area, but the poor can’t.  They are stuck without the means to escape.  Campaigners are calling it a ‘greenwash’ with government bowing to big business, saying it is not a transition, but a robbery of their park and public land by the rich. 

Fire Service Cuts

            Scottish Fire and Rescue (SFARS) must cut staff and even fire appliance numbers, despite already cutting more than 1100 firefighter jobs over the last decade, closing 5 control rooms and increasing response times per incident by 14%.  They will get a flat cash budget settlement for the next four years, and must make £36 million cuts including £11 million in 2023 and 2024.

            SFARS will be withdrawing appliances on a temporary basis from September in Govan, Maryhill and Cowcaddens, Greenock, Hamilton, Kingsway East in Dundee; Perth, Dunfermline, Glenrothes and Methil.

Wind Farms paid to shut down

            Our energy bills were collectively £507 million higher than they should have been in 2021, because the National Grid must pay wind farms to shut down due to lack of capacity to send all the energy produced south.  Excess power could be stored in batteries, or as pumped-storage hydro or green hydrogen.

            Pumped-storage moves water from a low elevation to a higher one when excess power is available, and when it is not, water flows back down, turning a turbine to generate power.  Green hydrogen uses excess renewable electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, with hydrogen stored for later use. 

Water Scarcity Warnings

            Loch Ness dropped last month to its lowest level since records began in 1990, and a road between Inverness and Ullapool, submerged when the Loch Glascarnoch reservoir was built, has now reappeared.  Some are saying Loch Ness levels have been affected by hydro-electric power schemes, leading to a dramatic shrinkage in size of the River Ness

Land Reform

            Respondents to a Scottish government consultation have backed a public interest test for prospective buyers but want the upper limit lower than the 3000 hectares proposed.  Three-quarters of respondents believe landowners should have a duty to comply with the strengthening of the Lands Rights and Responsibilities Statement (LRSS).

Energy Upgrading costs

            Those who rent out properties (and those they rent to) will be in trouble from 2025, when all private rented properties must reach energy efficiency rating C. owners will have to instal floor, roof, walls and loft insulation and an efficient heating system, plus double-glazing and low-energy lighting.

Island Communities

            This is bound to affect many thousands of properties nationwide.  Island communities may not have the personnel to deliver these changes, even if the cost of them was not prohibitive.  The cost of upgrading will be about £10,000.  Island economies may be devastated, a further burden to bear along with the problems with ferry connection, the withdrawal of copper landlines, and lack of affordable and reliable broadband.

            The Scottish government voucher scheme for broadband gives telecoms companies up to £5,000 per installation (taxpayer-paid), with occupiers having to pay another £2,500 in addition per installation. 

            Many properties throughout the UK are at best E rating at the moment, and upgrading will for many not be financially possible.

Greens putting the Fear into Householders

            Not content with stopping gas boilers being installed in newbuilds, Patrick Harvie has tabled legislation which would require EXISTING gas boilers to be ripped out of houses.  Or what?  Would we have midnight raids from the Gas Police to inspect properties, complete with hit squads to rip the offending equipment out on the spot?

            Patrick, however, is content for his own tenement building to continue with a gas boiler.  He has no plans to rip it out, and if anyone could afford such an expensive commitment it would be a government minister.

            He suggests heat pumps and district heating systems as an alternative.  Wonderful, except heat pumps are often not as efficient as what they replace, they are loud and unsightly, and the cost is prohibitive.  You get a government grant of between £7,500 and £9,000 (the latter applying to rural housing), which may barely cover the cost of the heat pump, but the installation costs are about the same amount again, and you get nothing for that.  And if you have a ground source heat pump the installation can cost up to £45,000.




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