Warning as Northern Ireland fire crews battle 240 gorse fires over weekend
Spate of deliberately-lit gorse blazes stretching fire service to its limits
A spate of gorse fires across Northern Ireland has seen fire fighters deal with 460 blazes since the start of the month.
Over the weekend alone, the NI Fire and Rescue Service battled around 240 gorse fires here - more than half of May's total so far.
Between 6pm and 11pm on Friday alone there were 160 incidents - around one every two minutes.
Yesterday, a Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) spokesperson said around 80% of these have been as a result of deliberate ignition.
Group Commander Brian Stanfield of the NIFRS said that coping with the huge number of deliberately-lit gorse fires was a putting tremendous pressure on Fire Service resources.
The first priority is public safety, he said.
"At the same time, dealing with these fires comes at a significant cost to the taxpayer, and also means that appliances and fire fighting equipment have to be moved around the country," he said.
"And when appliances are out dealing with gorse fires caused by anti-social behaviour, they are not available for other incidents.
"With the dry weather set to continue there is a high risk of further fires this week.
"I would like to appeal to members of the public to be vigilant and take care while out in the countryside in order to prevent further fires."
Gorse and wildland fires traditionally occur in remote areas and are extremely challenging to extinguish.
Mr Stanfield added: "Our crews have been working tirelessly to, bring under control and extinguish these fires."
The NIFRS dealt with 221 gorses blazes in the first five days of May, compared to just 19 over the same period last year.
Yesterday, members of the public were asked to be careful in the Mullaghfad area of Fivemiletown due to substantial smoke coming from a large wildland fire.
The call-out involved a total of eight Fire Service appliances and 45 fire fighters taking on the blaze in difficult conditions.
"We believe this fire was started deliberately - which is reckless and puts at risk the public and the environment," the Fire Service said. "Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service would appeal to anyone who has any information in relation to fire setting to contact PSNI."
The warning comes after families were forced to evacuate their homes on Friday night in Newry as the fire service tackled a nearby blaze.
Some 60 fire fighters worked to bring the fire, thought to have been started deliberately, under control near residential houses on Barley Lane and St Mary's high school, NIFRS said.
PSNI Superintendent Emma Bond said: "Gorse fires have the potential to cause widespread damage to the environment and harm to wildlife, as well as threatening homes, farms and the people living in those areas.
"The unpredictability of fire can also mean that those setting them may be putting their own lives at risk as well as the lives of the fire service personnel and other emergency services tasked to deal with them."