The fire service is dealing with 10 gorse fires every day across Northern Ireland — many of them started deliberately — it has emerged.
Firefighters attended almost 600 blazes in the space of two months, including raging infernos at the Mourne Mountains and Belfast’s Cavehill.
It has led to warnings that arsonists are putting people’s lives at risk.
Last summer was one of the busiest on record for the fire service, as long spells of warm weather saw a huge spike in blazes.
According to figures obtained by this newspaper, firefighters responded to 583 gorse blazes during April and May.
One of the busiest areas was the Downpatrick district, where crews dealt with over 100 incidents.
It takes in the Mourne Mountains, which were the target of arsonists last month.
More than 40 firefighters battled a blaze which swept through woodland at Moneyscalp Forest near Bryansford — the fourth time the area had been targeted in six weeks.
In a separate incident, 25 firefighters attended a blaze which spread over three acres of Cavehill on the same weekend.
Major blazes have also raged in parts of Londonderry, Tyrone and Armagh.
Kevin O’Neill, who is group commander with the fire service, said that while the number of gorse fires has fallen compared to last year, they are still causing major problems.
“Recent gorse fires on Cavehill and parts of the Mourne Mountains have regrettably demonstrated that deliberate fire-setting in the countryside is still very much a serious community problem for Northern Ireland,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Dealing with these types of incidents puts not only firefighters’ lives at risk but the lives of everyone in the local community and drastically impacts upon fire service resources.
“People need to realise that we simply cannot be in two places at once and fighting gorse fires means that fire appliances and firefighters are diverted from other incidents.”
According to Mr O’Neill, contingency plans have to be put in place to ensure continued emergency cover for towns and villages across Northern Ireland — which could result in a delay when responding.
He said the fire service has been working to educate people about the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting.
“However, gorse fires still remain a community problem and I am appealing for help from the community in preventing these types of fires,” he added.
“Be vigilant for anyone starting fires deliberately and report any suspicious behaviour to the police. While the majority of gorse fires that we attend are started deliberately they can also start unintentionally by thoughtless and careless behaviour.”
Last year the fire service recorded the busiest day in its history when it responded to 101 calls in the space of 10 hours.
At one stage 60 out of 68 fire stations were involved in fighting blazes.
Gorse fires in April and May:
Eastern Command: 76
Northern Command: 116
Southern Command: 229
Western Command: 162