Fire chief's extreme weather cash plea

Norfolk needs an 'emergency' fund to tackle the rising costs of extreme weather, the county's top firefighter said last night as a giant blaze scorched farmland the size of 60 football pitches.

Norfolk needs an 'emergency' fund to tackle the rising costs of extreme weather, the county's top firefighter said last night as a giant blaze scorched farmland the size of 60 football pitches.

As crews from as far afield as Wymondham and Stalham yesterday tackled a huge field of burning straw, at Salhouse, near Norwich, the county's chief fire officer, Richard Elliott, said he wanted to create a fund to help absorb the rising cost of dealing with the consequences of freak weather events, such as last summer's record-breaking heatwave or increased winter flooding.

The move was last night supported by a leading climate expert who said it showed a recognition that the effects of climate change were already being felt.

And it comes as the fire service carried out a U-turn on controversial plans to raid £203,000 from a staff pension pot to meet some of the £350,000 bill for call-outs last July after a fourfold increase in calls.

As temperatures soared, funds were stretched to the limit as bosses were forced to rely more than usual on retained firefighters.

That prompted the 'raid' after budgets shot into the red and condemnation from union leaders, but Mr Elliott said the cash had now been found elsewhere.

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Mr Elliott warned the savings would only buy the service a temporary reprieve and a dedicated fund was needed.

"We've managed to do that, though, because of slippages in projects from last year to this year," he said.

"What I would like to do is create a reserve for the kinds of issues we had for the last summer and which we will undoubtedly have this year.

"We are not talking about millions, we are talking a couple of hundred thousand pounds."

Tim Lenton, a climate expert based at the UEA's school of environmental sciences, said the move highlighted how the effects of climate change were already being felt.

"My intuition is that we are seeing the consequences already," he said. "It could be a regional example of what we would expect from global warming.

"It's entirely consistent with the typical predictions of hotter drier summers and wetter winters, which suggests more drought-related fires in the summer and more rainfall-related weather in the winters."

Crews spent more than two hours tackling the 30-hectare blaze at Muck Lane after the alarm was raised at 12.15pm.

Chris Boulton, fire safety area manager, last night urged the public to be vigilant in the summer heat.

"Last summer was one of the busiest Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service has known," he said.

"There wasn't one particular common cause you could put your finger on other than, obviously, the extremely hot and, as importantly, dry conditions.

"It is too early to say whether last year's conditions will be repeated but the main piece of advice we would give as we head towards the summer is for people to be vigilant.

"Our message is simple; we live in a beautiful, scenic county which is there to be enjoyed, especially in sunny weather, and following some basic advice will help you do that safely.

"Whether you are a farmer with acres of standing crop or out for a walk or picnic in the forest or heathland, we would simply ask you to be aware of the potential risks."