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Lives may be lost in worst gorse fires in six years, warns fire chief

By Victoria Leonard

These are the dramatic scenes captured as gorse fires raged in the west of the province yesterday - the latest in 583 such blazes here in the past eight days.

The Belfast Telegraph was on the scene as firefighters battled to bring the blazes at Mullaghfad Forest near Fivemiletown and Bunnisnagapple on the outskirts of Brookeborough under control.

Our pictures show smoke billowing skywards as the fires consumed the countryside, destroying wildlife and trees and coming close to homes.

Between May 1 and 9, the NI Fire and Rescue Service handled 2,290 calls and mobilised resources to 1,282 incidents. Of these, 583 were gorse-related - of which 523 were started deliberately.

Speaking at the scene of the Bunnisnagapple blaze, Fire Service Group Commander Keith Black said Northern Ireland was "like a tinderbox" due to the ongoing dry weather, and issued a plea for those who are deliberately starting the fires to cease before their activities claim lives.

"My message to anyone who is starting fires deliberately is: 'Stop'," he said. "This could be life-threatening for local residents and fire crews. It's absolutely frustrating that our men and women are risking their lives where these fires are being started deliberately.

"The vast majority of these fires are being fought by men and women from the local area - from Lisnaskea, from Fivemiletown - who are being released by their employers to come out and do that for us.

"And these people who are deliberately starting these fires are directly putting those firefighters, themselves and other members of the public at risk, whether they understand that or not."

The fire chief said the dramatic rise in the number of blazes was draining resources.

"These are the worst gorse fires we have seen in six years, and are two-and-a-half to three times the level of fires that we had for the same period last year. That's a big draw on resources," he said.

"At Fivemiletown on Monday night we had 10 fire appliances - that's 60 people. At Bunnisnagapple we had 12 firefighters, two to three officers and the Forestry Service - that's 20 to 25 people - and there were four ongoing incidents throughout Northern Ireland."

He appealed for the public's help.

"Anytime they are out enjoying the countryside they need to be aware of the risks around them and they need to be vigilant and ensure they report any behaviour that they think is suspicious," he added.

A Forestry Service spokesman said he feared the spate of fires was going to "destroy all wildlife in the Slieve Beagh-Mullaghfad-Lisnaskea Special Protection Area.

"These fires could totally wipe out the wildlife, everything could be lost," he claimed. "This is a major area for hen harriers, which are an endangered species, and we are in nesting season at the moment, so it couldn't have come at a worse time. I am disgusted at this."

RSPB warden Amy Burns added that she had been told by the NI Raptor Study Group that two hen harrier nests have been lost in the Slieve Beagh-Mullaghfad protected areas.

"A whole generation of chicks has been lost this year," she said.

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