UK weather: drought expected to be declared in parts of England on Friday

<span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

An official drought could be declared for parts of England on Friday as rising temperatures and tinderbox conditions prompted the Met Office to issue its highest warning under its fire severity index.

The National Drought Group – made up of civil servants, the Environment Agency, water companies and other groups including the National Farmers’ Union – is due to meet on Friday to discuss the longest dry spell since 1976.

The group is expected to declare an official drought for some parts of England such as southern and eastern areas. This will prompt more hosepipe bans and further measures by water companies to manage resources to protect supplies and the environment.

The trade body representing water companies said a decision on the declaration of an official drought was imminent.

Stuart Colville, the director of policy at Water UK, said it was looking “increasingly inevitable” that an official drought would be declared. Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he added this would be the “right decision given some of the pressure on the environment that we’re seeing at the moment”.

Several water companies have imposed hosepipe bans or are preparing to do so, and have been criticised for the failure to prevent leaks. Colville said companies were in a “constant battle” to stop water leakage but that the industry was doing “everything possible”.

He said: “Although we are currently seeing the lowest level of leakage on record, it is a constant battle because, particularly in hot, dry conditions, what happens is the soil dries out, cracks, and it moves, and that puts additional pressure on the pipes, and that can cause additional bursts.”

Southern Water has implemented a hosepipe ban for customers in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and Thames Water, which supplies 15 million customers in London and the Thames Valley, has said it will bring in one in the coming weeks.

It comes as temperatures are set to climb to 34C on Thursday and up to a peak of 36C over the weekend in the areas covered by an amber warning for extreme heat issued by the Met Office for much of England and Wales.

The Met Office’s fire severity index – which gives an assessment of how severe a fire could become if one were to start – is very high for most of England and Wales, and will reach “exceptional”, the highest level, for a swathe of England stretching to the border with Wales at the weekend.

Related: What will happen if drought is declared by UK government?

The Fire Brigades Union has warned that the UK is “completely unprepared” for the fire risk posed by the latest soaring temperatures.

During last month’s record-breaking heatwave, scores of homes were destroyed as dozens of blazes broke out.

Riccardo la Torre, national officer for the Fire Brigades Union, has warned that cuts to services across the UK have left fire service unable to deal with a repeat of those scenes. Speaking to Sky News, he said: “These are brutal, brutal fires to fight. The temperature that they burn at, the speed at which they spread at. The reality is we’ve been left completely unprepared to do that as a fire and rescue service.

“We’ve had over a fifth of the workforce cut since 2010, that’s over 11,500 firefighters cut. Yet we’re asking them to deal with these extreme weather events in increasing regularity and increasing severity.”

La Torre warned the lack of preparation threatened the lives of fire officers. “The professionals on the ground have been warning that these conditions are coming and we very much saw the reality of that in these last few weeks.

“Firefighters have been injured, firefighters have ended up in hospital, we’ve seen families lose their homes, we’ve seen businesses lost, infrastructure burn to the ground, because we simply can’t get to these fires quick enough. When we do, we simply don’t have the resources to deal with them adequately.”

Mark Hardingham, the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, said the fire service was “well prepared” to respond to a high volume of calls. But in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, he warned that the prolonged dry and hot spell created an “unprecedented” risk of fires.

He said: “I can’t remember a summer like this and I’ve been in the fire service 32 years.”