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Wildfires Follow Record Hot Temperatures in UK, Burn in Famous Woodland That Inspired 'Winnie the Pooh'
Wildfires broke out across the UK Tuesday as the country experienced its hottest winter day on record. Firefighters battled blazes from Scotland to Wales, including two in the forest that inspired the "Hundred Acre Wood" in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books.
Firefighters said the fires in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex were made more likely due to the fact that the ground was drier because of "unusual warm weather this week," BBC News reported.
The twin fires impacted more than 35 hectares of forest, but were brought under control by 5 p.m.
Other blazes across the country ignited for similar reasons.
"Wildfires are not common in February," Dale Gardiner of the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said, as The New York Times reported. "And due to the above average weather conditions, this has elevated the wildfire risk across the county."
The West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service responded to a fire on Marsden Moor in northwest England that one witness described as "apocalyptic."
Crews responded to reports of a fire at 7:51 p.m. Tuesday, according to a statement from the fire service.
"It was one of the of the highest flame fronts we have seen with flames of up to two metres high (approximately 6.5 feet) and it was moving fast across the moorland," station manager Adam Greenwood said.
A crew of around 30 firefighters worked to control the fire until it died down around 3 a.m. Wednesday, though crews stayed to monitor the situation.
"It was really adverse conditions. We were rotating the crews for their welfare as it's very physically demanding work," Greenwood said.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, meanwhile, a fire on the famous viewing point Arthur's Seat was visible from the center of the city, The New York Times reported.
Around 800 square meters (approximately 957 square yards) of gorse were burning Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, The Edinburgh News reported.
A fire in Glyndyfrdwy, Wales that was still burning Wednesday morning was the only one of the fires to send someone to the hospital, when a man was rescued after being trapped in his tractor by the flames, The New York Times reported.
Scientists spoke to BBC News about why the fires had broken out and exactly how unusual they were.
Winter is a typical time for controlled burns on moorlands in the UK, when it is safe to burn overgrown heather to allow new shoots to grow and create ideal habitat for grouse. But the fires that erupted Tuesday were not controlled.
"Landscape fires in Britain happen disproportionately in the spring, because on the moors and in the forest, you have no leaf cover," King's College London professor David Demeritt told BBC News. "Sticks and leaf litter dry out. And because this has been a relatively dry winter, there's more of that fuel on the ground — everything has dried out early."
Scientists also agreed that the warmer weather was made more likely by climate change.
"I am very confident to say that there's an element of climate change in these warm temperatures," Acting Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University Dr. Friedericke Otto told BBC News. "But climate change alone is not causing it. You have to have the right weather systems too."
However, the fires are indicative of what the UK could see more of in the future.
"Climate change predictions suggest that, on average, conditions for wildfires in the U.K. are expected to increase as temperatures rise," Met Office meteorologist Bonnie Diamond told The New York Times.
London School of Economics environmental geography researcher Dr. Thomas Smith told BBC News that the early fires had one advantage: since the soil beneath them was still wetter than soil tends to be in the summer, they were less likely to spread and do lasting damage to vegetation and wildlife.
"The fires could even be doing us a favour - burning off overgrowth that may have become fuel for worse fires later in the season," Smith said.
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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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