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Bid to identify culprits behind raft of wildfires

By Staff Reporter

Firefighters in Northern Ireland dealt with nearly 1,000 gorse blazes in May — and almost all were deliberate.

The shocking figures were revealed as a new joint operation to investigate the wildfires started deliberately in the local countryside last month was launched yesterday.

Many are believed to have been illegally sparked by farmers burning vegetation, although prosecutions are rare.

Between 2005 and 2010, £35m was spent on fighting wildfires alone.

Operation WildFire will bring together experts from the NI Environment Agency (NIEA), PSNI and the NI Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) to investigate the cause of the fires in depth.

They will be assisted by a team of international wildfire investigators. Many of the recent fires spread rapidly due to the dry ground conditions, putting the public, property, firefighters and important habitats and species at risk.

The initial work of Operation WildFire will be to determine the origin of the blazes.

These include infernos at Slieve Beagh in Clogher and Mullaghcarn in Omagh, both Co Tyrone.

Mark Smyth of NIFRS said: “NIFRS attended 983 gorse fires in May 2017, 801 of which took place from May 1-12 alone.

“More than 90% of these gorse fires were started deliberately.

“But given the nature of the fires and their rapid spread, identifying the exact origin and cause of the fire while actively fighting the fires has been difficult.”

The PSNI’s Darryl Johnston added that the ultimate aim was to bring  cases to court and deter the arsonists in the future.

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