Michael Simmons Michael Simmons

Fact check: Is Sadiq Khan right about fires?

A cool look at the data

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Will global warming condemn Britain to more fires? Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has been widely quoted this morning comparing recent fires around the capital to the Blitz. ‘Yesterday was the busiest day for the fire service in London since the second world war,’ he said – climate change caused the heatwave which ‘led to the fires’. He added that he was dismayed that the Tory leadership contenders were not discussing this ‘elephant in the room.’

So is this right – or misleading? As so often, it’s a mixture. Khan is correct to say that the number of calls to London fire brigade was a record high: it received more than 2,600 calls. But 999 call handlers can receive hundreds of calls about the same incident. Yesterday the fire brigade responded to 1,146 ‘incidents’ – again the most on record but only slightly above the previous high of 1,058. The records don’t go back before 2009 so how likely is it that 1,146 incidents – almost four times the average – is a postwar high?

But the link between fires and climate change? That’s harder, and more context is needed. The planet is certainly warming, but fires in London are becoming (a lot) less common. So the events accompanying this heatwave need to be put in context. Global land temperatures have taken off since 1950:

All over, you can see the trend: far fewer fires

But one thing thats not risen is fires in the capital. With the decline of chimneys and chip pans (and the rise of sprinklers and smoke alarms) there are way fewer fires in London – which is why the fire brigade is far smaller than it once was and so many former fire stations are now pizzerias. The planet has been warming but fires have been less frequent.

Our data starts in 1966 and every year from then to 2008 there were more than 30,000 fires in Greater London.

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