500 gorse blazes in a week... most of them deliberate
Lives are at risk, warns embattled Fire Service
Firefighters in Northern Ireland had by last night tackled more than 500 gorse blazes in the space of just a week.
The shocking figures came as a popular landmark was forced to close because of a gorse fire close by.
The 'Stairway to Heaven' boardwalk on Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh had to be shut yesterday while crews dealt with the blaze.
The Cuilcagh Legna Rocky Way is now closed to the public until further notice following the second fire in the area in 24 hours.
On Sunday night firefighters were called to attend a gorse blaze in the area. Due to the difficult terrain and fading light conditions, it was allowed to burn on.
Emergency crews were called again on Monday at 8.50am.
Between last Monday, May 1 and yesterday the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) attended a staggering 511 gorse fires. The Fire Service said 466 of them were started deliberately.
It said the majority of the incidents took place in the Southern Area Command - which covers all of counties Down and Armagh - and saw 245 blazes in a week.
The second busiest was the Western Area Command - which covers an enormous 4,000 square km across counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh - and saw 162 fires.
The busiest individual stations were Downpatrick and Lurgan, with crews dealing with 46 and 41 incidents respectively.
NIFRS warned that dealing with these types of incidents not only put firefighters' lives at risk, but the lives of everyone in the local community, and put additional pressure on operational resources.
However, the Fire Service was unable to say just how much the recent spate of outbreaks had cost to attend.
Area Commander Maurice Rafferty said: "We are appealing to everyone within the community to remain vigilant when in the countryside. If you see a fire report it immediately.
"Don't attempt to tackle fires, and leave the area as soon as possible. Deliberate fire setting has major consequences - it ties up our vital resources from other more serious incidents and potentially puts people and property at risk.
"These fires can easily spread and even a slight change in wind direction can pose a serious risk to life, property and the environment.
"If anyone has any information in relation to fire-setting we would urge them to contact the PSNI.
"I would like to thank our crews, who have worked under extremely hazardous conditions and intense heat to bring the fires under control."
One of the largest of the recent gorse fires threatened houses and a school in Newry, and is believed to have been started deliberately.
More than 60 firefighters tackled the blaze on Friday night, with flames coming within yards of some homes.