Imagine a place where people live surrounded by beautiful natural areas, where residents love the environment and enjoy recreational opportunities such as riding, outdoor sports and just walking the dog. People live in homes that they cherish, and are engaged in local community activities such as school, church and local clubs. Put wildfire into this scenario and then imagine where you are. If you are American, you might be thinking about many U.S. communities in traditionally fireprone areas, perhaps even your hometown. You probably are not thinking about a small village in the south of England.
Thursley Village in Surrey, less than an hour's drive south of London, has all of these values, and yes, a significant threat to these values from wildfire. In 2006, more than 550 acres burned in the Thursley Common National Nature Reserve, one of the largest remaining heathlands in Surrey with a mixture of woodland, lowland heath and mire (bog). Homes in the village and the surrounding areas were threatened and firefighters were injured. Plants, animals and the longterm recovery of critical habitats were severely impacted. Members of the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and the national Chief Fire Officers Association of the United Kingdom (CFOA-UK) have worked for years to try to bring the problem of wildfire threats to the attention of both national policymakers and local officials.
The Thursley Parish Council, who are elected officials at the local level and residents of the village, have paid heed to the words and work of the Surrey FRS. Council member Karen Tyler said, "When Alan Clark and Dave Medley (Surrey FRS officials) came to talk with the Council about this, we could see how seriously they took it, and we felt it was important for us to pay attention," to the wildfire risk and implementation of safety actions.
Ms. Tyler and her fellow Councilmembers, including Chairman Peter Hunter (depicted above with Surrey FRS members), were all on hand on October 11 for the first community-wide event on Firewise and a launch of activity in the community. Fire officials spoke to approximately 40 residents about the risk and people shared their experiences of the 2006 fire and what has been done as a result. A Natural England representative (an equivalent to the U.S. National Park Service) has been working closely with the community on fire recovery and future fire prevention.
A demonstration of new firefighting equipment engaged families and children. Surrey FRS volunteers talked one-on-one and in small groups with residents and encouraged people to sign up for a home safety visit by the fire department. Fire officials aim to conduct outside "walk-arounds" with property owners of 140 homes deemed most at risk from future wildfire by the end of this year. Ms. Cat Edgeley, one of only a handful of British academics deeply involved in wildfire research to date, was also on hand to observe and provide context to this new activity in southern England. Ms. Edgeley will be initiating her graduate studies in Natural Resources (with a strong focus on wildfire) at the University of Idaho in January.
Congratulations to the Village, the fire department, the land managers and all who have engaged in improving their collective safety and protection of irreplaceable natural values in this beautiful and historic corner of the world. NFPA and its partners hope to learn important lessons from how Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities are applied in this setting.
Photo credits: Top - Cat Edgeley; center - Michele Steinberg