The shocking cost of fighting arson attacks in Northern Ireland in just 19 months
As the Telegraph reveals the staggering bill for fighting fires started deliberately, demands grow for the culprits to be jailed
Almost £90,000 is being spent every day tackling fires which have been started deliberately across Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The huge expenditure was disclosed as it emerged arsonists were responsible for setting more than 20,000 blazes in just 19 months.
Fire chiefs have estimated the bill for dealing with the attacks topped a staggering £50m in that period.
It has prompted demands for tougher action to be taken against arsonists, with one MLA claiming culprits should be jailed.
South Down representative Jim Wells, whose constituency was ravaged by a series of gorse fires earlier this year, said a tougher message had to be sent out to arsonists.
"The only way to solve this problem is to introduce jail sentences and put people behind bars," he said. "We need to show how seriously society takes this nonsense."
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) said it dealt with 13,045 deliberate blazes across Northern Ireland during 2010, with a further 7,173 incidents between January and July this year.
Historic buildings, schools, business premises, Orange halls and GAA clubs were among the targets.
According to NIFRS, the total cost of tackling those blazes came to £51,423,830 - an average of £2,543 per blaze and £89,122 a day.
The fire service is funded by the Department of Health, meaning that thousands of pounds which could be used for frontline healthcare are being wasted every day.
Mr Wells, who is deputy chairman of the Stormont health committee, described the waste as "scandalous".
"It is waste on a monumental scale and literally money down the drain," he added.
"The water that is used to hose down a blaze goes down the drain, as does the money used to bring firefighters out during unsociable hours.
"If only the mindless idiots who start these fires wised up and had some sense, it would be a huge amount of money freed up for essential frontline medical care."
He believes tougher sentences must be brought in to punish arsonists.
"I think we need to make an example of offenders," he added.
"If you robbed a bank you would go to jail and yet we are robbing the health service and society of £50m."
At the start of May, around 2,000 gorse fires were put out by firefighters across Northern Ireland, most of which were started deliberately.
Land in the Mournes and West Tyrone was worst affected, with hundreds of acres badly damaged. The cost of dealing with gorse blazes alone topped £8m.
A spokesman for NIFRS said officers were working to educate people on the dangers of arson attacks.
"The fire service works in the community and with young people through our youth engagement programmes and initiatives in schools and in the community to address the problem of deliberate fire setting and other types of other anti-social behaviour," he said.
"We would appeal to the public not to start deliberate fires as they are dangerous and waste valuable emergency services time."
He said the £51m bill was the total absorbed cost, which includes the day-to-day running of a 24/7 fire and rescue service.