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Droughts and more wildfires may be next for Britain after record heat wave

Homes gutted by fire on July 25 in Wennington, in the London area, after a wildfire broke out during a record heat wave. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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LONDON — After Britain sweltered through its hottest day on record, emergency services are bracing for what could come next: drought and more wildfires.

If the dry, hot spell does not relent, swaths of England could face drought next month, according to the U.K. Environment Agency.

A depletion of rivers and reservoirs is affecting crop harvests and fish, officials said, as a fire chief called on British cities to be better prepared for the prospect of wildfires.

The country’s record heat last week — above 104 Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) — threatened to buckle train tracks and melt airport runways. Subways suspended service, and London’s fire brigade said it had its busiest day since World War II.

Flames spread through more than 40 houses and shops in parts of London as the heat dome sat over Europe.

Scientists have pointed to the role of climate change in raising the likelihood of the heat wave on the continent, where wildfires forced thousands of people to flee and hundreds of deaths were reported in Spain and Portugal.

Europe sizzles in record heat wave as thousands flee wildfires

The punishing heat may have passed in Britain, but it exposed how much extreme weather can upend daily life, and it highlighted fears of looming challenges.

“We must adapt to this change,” the London Fire Brigade said in an email Tuesday, describing the recent fires and temperatures as “an example of how we are increasingly being challenged” by the weather.

“We will learn lessons from the recent intense grass fires, evaluate our response and put in place any additional training that will help to keep Londoners and our firefighters safe,” it said.

Meanwhile, the U.K. Environment Agency has moved most of England into “prolonged dry weather” status, although hopes remained that rain could prevent a drought declaration.

A 2018 drought alert prompted hosepipe bans to help cut demand and save water for higher-priority uses including farming. The Environment Agency said in a briefing Monday that water levels were down and that it was possible such restrictions could return this summer.

As the sense of urgency grows, the National Drought Group, including officials from the agency and water companies, convened Tuesday.

London hit 104 degrees. What is that like for your city?

“We’ve had prolonged dry weather this year which has led to exceptionally low river flows across much of England and reservoir levels falling across Yorkshire, central and southwest England,” the Environment Agency wrote in an email Tuesday.

It said the recent high temperatures would add pressure and that its response included monitoring river levels and fish rescues. “Water companies are also enacting their drought plans as a routine precaution to maintain water supply,” the agency added.

Firefighters also are making preparations. The weather may be cooler, “but the risk of wildfires remains,” the National Fire Chiefs Council said Monday.

Keep cool and carry on? Britons struggle through hottest day on record.

England and Wales have recorded more than 440 wildfires so far this year, up from 247 in all of 2021, “in part due to climate,” the group says.

A wildfire adviser for the council, fire chief David Swallow, said brigades in cities should prioritize the threat of wildfires and learn tactics from firefighters who are more used to battling flames in the countryside.

“Everything is bone-dry, and services need to recognize the risk they’ve now got,” he told the BBC. “If they don’t, then they’re naive.”

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