£500k bill for 2,000 deliberate gorse fires in Northern Ireland this year
The cost of dealing with a spate of gorse fires earlier this year topped £500,000, it has been revealed.
Crews responded to nearly 2,000 blazes in the Northern Ireland countryside in the first six months of 2017.
Many of these took place during a spell of hot, dry weather in May.
The wildfires spread rapidly across acres of arid land, putting the public, property and important habitats at risk.
In one week alone crews attended 511 fires - the vast majority of these had been started deliberately.
The Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) has revealed that the cost of dealing with the blazes totalled £556,405.
The figures were released after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.
In one case, dealing with a gorse fire in Co Tyrone topped £40,000.
The blaze at Mountfield near Omagh on May 9 raged over a stretch of grassland, and cost £41,031 to deal with.
A fire near Fivemiletown in Co Tyrone on May 8, which swept across grassland, crops and forestry, cost £22,751 to put out.
This was the second blaze on the same site in 24 hours. A day previously a similar fire cost £10,445. In this incident some local residents had to be evacuated to a community hall.
Assistant Chief Fire Officer Alan Walmsley said gorse fires posed a serious risk to life, property and the environment, and placed further strain on resources.
He added: "It drastically impacts upon NIFRS operational response and puts additional fiscal strain on an already challenging financial environment.
"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."
The overall £556,405 bill includes incidents up to June 28.
The Fire Service said the figure is based on the costs that are directly attributable to attendance at an incident, such as staff time and fuel consumption. However, the real cost is likely to be considerably higher when other costs and overheads are factored in.
A breakdown of the most costly call-outs reveals a fire near Newtownhamilton in south Armagh, which spread across 100 acres in early May, totalled £9,219.
Another at Blackisland Road near Portadown, which covered around 15 hectares, cost £6,395.
In this six-month period, crews were sent to a total of 1,917 incidents.
A geographical analysis of call-outs shows that the Downpatrick area was one of the worst areas for blazes, with 207 incidents. Crews from Lurgan Fire Station dealt with 137 gorse fires, while crews at Northland in Londonderry were called out 106 times. Nearly half of the gorse fires occurred in May, with 983 reported across Northern Ireland that month. More than 90% were started deliberately, the Fire Service said.
Some raged in areas of special scientific interest, including Slieve Beagh, near Clogher, which is a key habitat for the hen harrier.
In May the popular Cuilcagh boardwalk in Fermanagh, known as the 'stairway to heaven', was closed while firefighters dealt with a heather fire. Due to the difficult terrain and fading light the blaze was allowed to burn.
In response to the epidemic, a multi-agency taskforce named Operation Wildfire was set up. It brings together experts from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the PSNI and the Fire Service.
Mr Walmsley added: "We have been working hard to address the problem of gorse fires and educate people about the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting with partner agencies and community groups."
He added: "Gorse fires still remain a community problem and I am appealing for help from the community in preventing these types of fires.
"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.
"Deliberate and accidental fires can cost lives and we recommend that the public heed our advice to protect themselves and our countryside."
by adrian rutherford