A 10-year-old child was being questioned by police yesterday as firefighters continued to battle almost 200 wild fires currently raging across Northern Ireland.
He was one of two boys — the other is aged 15 — apprehended yesterday by police on suspicion of arson in the Aghnagar Road area of Sixmilecross.
News of the development came as fire chiefs warned the public to avoid gorse and grass areas, calling conditions in some country districts “extremely dangerous” after dozens of blazes were started deliberately.
Thousands of firefighters were last night desperately battling against large infernos that have forced people from their homes in districts across several counties.
Dry weather and high winds have turned hundreds of acres across the Mourne and Sperrin mountain ranges into no-go areas.
Hundreds of acres have been scorched as fires spread across gorseland a rate of a metre a second in some places.
Farmers are permitted to burn gorse off land for a limited time annually. But last night the Ulster Farmers’ Union said responsibility for the fires did not rest with its members.
Spokesman Joe McDonald said: “There is a period in the calender year when farmers are allowed to manage gorse. This ends in April and we are beyond that now. This is a legitimate farmland practice that is done in controlled conditions with guidance from Dard (Department for Agriculture and Rural Development).
“There are no indications whatsoever that this has anything to do with the farming community. “
Roads in several parts of the Sperrins and Mournes were closed yesterday as a thick blanket of smoke descended.
Northern Ireland Fire Service assistant chief fire officer Dale Ashford last night warned that lives could be put at risk as a result of the arson attacks.
“At this time I would appeal to members of the public not to go near gorseland or grassland areas where these incidents are ongoing as it can be dangerous to the potential for fire spread,” he said.
Police and Fire Service officials believe the majority of gorse fires were started deliberately.
PSNI Chief Inspector Graham Dodds said he is worried by the young age of some of those involved in gorseland arson attacks.
He said: “While I would praise the excellent work of my officers and their Fire Service colleagues in this current apprehension, it is extremely distressing to learn of the young ages of those involved.
“Apart from the potential destruction to property, wildlife and livestock, the unpredictability of the fires and sudden changes in direction could have endangered the young men themselves.
“Police are appealing to parents to be aware of where their children are.”
It emerged last night members of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team were tasked to clear a section of the Annalong Valley as a fire swept through it at the weekend. Rescue spokesman Ed Kilgore said mountain conditions were dangerous as rescuers attempted to locate walkers and campers.
He said: “Our people reported the fire was moving about a metre a second and was jumping across walls and onto trees. We drove up mountain tracks and found a number of people camping and got them down again.”