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Surry Countryside Champions - Spencer Nicholls, Rural Affairs Manager for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service

Craig Freeman
By Craig Freeman
29th July 2022

The Surrey Fire and Rescue Service work tirelessly to keep Surrey residents and the local area safe. For those working in the wildfire team, the devastating impact of climate change is worryingly clear. The exceptional heat we are seeing this summer in the UK is making an already difficult job even harder as they try to prevent wildfires occurring and minimise the damage to local habitats, wildlife, and people when they do occur.

We spoke to Spencer Nicholls, Rural Affairs Manager for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service to find out more about the work they do and what the people of Surrey can do to support them.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Can you summarise who you are and what you do?

My name is Spencer Nicholls, Rural Affairs Manager for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service. The main focus of my work is to ensure peoples’ safety whilst outdoors, both in the countryside and around open water. I also address wildfire prevention, mitigating and managing the adverse effects on our environment, including wildlife.

So, you protect the Surrey countryside. What makes our green spaces so special?

Surrey is the most wooded county in England with some of the finest examples of rare heathland habitat. Lowland heath is internationally rare, unique, and incredibly important for biodiversity, rare wildlife species and people.

What can we as Surrey residents do to help?

Fire on our heathland sites can decimate areas of valuable habitat and could be responsible for the local extinction of certain endangered wildlife. These habitats have taken many years to mature and develop to what we see today. A single careless act can destroy this valued habitat in a matter of minutes. We often see campfires and disposable barbeques as being the main sources of ignition and I would ask residents and visitors to Surrey to be mindful of their actions, the potential consequences, and always follow The Countryside Code.

With the effects of climate change is the risk of wildfires increasing?

As we see the effects of climate change continue, the threat from wildfire remains ever present with the likelihood that we shall unfortunately see wildfire events increasing. As a Service, historically, we wouldn’t start to see wildfire incidents until mid to late April, however each year we see large wildfire events creeping steadily into early March. This could be a sign that that we are already feeling the effects of climate change in the Surrey countryside.

What have been the three largest wildfires in Surrey?

The largest fires are not necessarily always the most damaging and can be quickly suppressed. Some smaller, deep-seated fires may require a significant deployment of personnel and resources for an extended period of time to fully extinguish. An example of which would be the major incident we saw at Chobham Common in 2020. This fire consumed around 500 acres of heathland and surrounding vegetation. The incident was officially closed following 10 days of firefighting operations.

How long does the landscape and wildlife take to recover after a wildfire?

After a significant wildfire event, the landscape can be quick to start its recovery with new shoots breaking through the burnt earth within days. However, these new shoots may choke out other plants which are slower to recover thus altering the habitat. For the surface vegetation alone, it can often take as much as 10-15 years to fully recover. But the problem doesn’t stop there. We often see wildfires burning deep into peat stores. These peat layers act as carbon stores and when burnt, release their stored carbon in the form of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere further advancing the climate change cycle.  Sadly, due to the time of the year that we see wildfire ignitions, the wildlife isn’t always able to escape and out run the advancing wildfire. In some cases, we see the potential of local extinction of some of our rarest species.

Your team does amazing work. On a day off where is your favourite Surrey greenspace to explore?

Tricky question! Surrey is blessed with some amazing greenspaces from dark ancient woodland stooped in history to lowland heath supporting a diverse eco system to sandy beaches with water lapping at its edge and I would encourage a visit to all of them. My favourite greenspace has an amazing view over lowland heath with mixed woodland in the distance and although only a short distance from shops and busy roads, on the right day it feel like you are miles from anywhere….but I shall be keeping that particular spot a secret!

Protect the Surrey Countryside