Embattled firefighters have had to deal with more than 1,100 gorse fires in Northern Ireland in the last two weeks — a staggering 97% of which have been started deliberately.
Over the weekend Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) was tackling up to 140 such incidents a day.
Yesterday, in the space of just 10 hours, firefighters responded to 101 calls.
One of Northern Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes remains out of bounds today after more than 100 acres of the Mourne Mountains were engulfed in 40-foot flames following further gorse fires over the bank holiday weekend — one of the busiest in the tourism calendar.
Firefighters from 61 of Northern Ireland's 68 stations were at the scene yesterday, along with other gorse fires in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Divis Mountain and at the Glenshane Pass.
Elsewhere, residents of the Leninmore Road in Omagh were last night evacuated from their homes as gorse fires raged nearby. The community centre on Hospital Road was opened to accommodate them.
The A505, Gortin Road, Gortin village, scenic route and Gortin Forest Park were all closed to drivers as the blazes spread.
Police also had to issue a warning to motorists as visibility was reduced on a number of roads around Ballycastle and Cushendall in Co Antrim.
Ten fire appliances alone were called to a ferocious blaze in Rostrevor, south Down, which started at Annalong Wood on Saturday and was still being battled yesterday after 18 hours.
The Mourne Mountains have been devastated by the infernos that have wiped out trees, vegetation and wildlife and threatened property and livestock.
Chief fire officer Peter Craig said: “The fire was moving that fast, it was moving over a metre a second, with 40-foot flames.
“To put that in perspective, that is a colossal fire which is moving faster than most people can run on a flat road, let alone on coarse and wild ground like this.”
The Fire Service said the blaze in the Mournes is one of the “most significant for many years”.
People have been warned not to walk or camp in the Mournes over the next few days for fear that the fires could spread.
Newry and Mourne Council set up emergency accommodation at Kilkeel Leisure Centre and Annalong Community Centre on Saturday evening after a number of homes were identified as being at risk. Several roads around Hilltown and Rostrevor were also closed by police.
South Down MLA Jim Wells, who lives in Kilkeel in the shadow of the Mournes, described the scene as one of “total despair” and he praised firefighters for their “tremendous” work in the face of “extremely challenging conditions”.
“There is no doubt that one of the biggest fires sweeping over Binnian was started deliberately,” he said. Mr Wells explained that the fires had “decimated” wildlife including chicks and nests and left the Mournes a “charred mess”.
“There have been a couple of narrow escapes — someone could have been killed,” he said. Mr Wells added that any “idiot” found deliberately starting a gorse fire should be given a prison sentence.
The National Trust, which owns 1,300 acres of land in the Mournes, has also expressed its sadness and disappointment.
A spokeswoman said: “Not only is there significant damage to the wildlife, flora, fauna and biodiversity but the mountains are a significant part of Northern Ireland tourism.
“If these fires have been started deliberately, this will have a massive impact on all strands of tourism.”
NIFRS has warned that lives of firefighters and the public are at risk if the arson attacks continue. It has had to initiate contingency planning arrangements to sustain normal service.
NIFRS deputy chief fire officer Chris Kerr said: “While our resources are heavily committed I can assure the public that additional resources have been made available to support our operational response.”
And chief fire officer Craig had this message for the culprits: “They need to know their actions have consequences.
“Somebody could lose their life.”
He added: “I am appealing to young people to decide where they want their firefighters.
“Up mountains tackling deliberately set fires or at their local fire stations ready to deal with life threatening emergencies and protecting our community.”
Last month Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) launched a new TV campaign highlighting the dangers of deliberately setting gorse fires in the countryside. Created by Ardmore Advertising, the 30-second ad enforces the message that if the Fire Service is tackling gorse fires it can’t be protecting the community. The thoughts of young people from areas where there are regular gorse fires were used over the animation.
A NUMBER of people had to be rescued from the Mourne Mountains after a gorse fire broke out at Annalong Wood on Saturday afternoon.
A police helicopter searched the area amid concerns for the safety of campers and walkers.
One Lisburn man said he and his partner “got away by the skin of our teeth” as the flames spread in a matter of seconds.
“We were up Slieve Binnian and noticed there was smoke coming from Annalong Wood, which is on the way back to the car park,” Jonathan Hamilton said.
“The wind started blowing and the flames literally shot across the road. The fields that we were standing in went up in around 30 seconds, we literally just got away by the skin of our teeth.”
EMERGENCY services south of the border were also battling rural fires yesterday.
Fire crews were attempting to contain blazes in parts of counties Donegal, Galway and Mayo.
The worst hit area was Donegal where a number of families were evacuated from their homes in Dungloe and Lettermacaward after a fire was started deliberately.
Army troops based at Finner Camp were deployed to help with the operation while a Defence Force helicopter with a large bucket attached was dispatched to dampen the flames.
The operation was being hampered by a strong easterly wind which fanned the flames.
The Northern Ireland Fire Service has issued the following guidelines to prevent gorse fires.
e Extinguish cigarettes and other smoking materials properly.
e Never throw cigarette ends out of car windows.
e Only use barbecues in designated and safe areas and never leave them unattended.
e Ensure that barbecues are fully extinguished and cold before disposing of their contents.
e Avoid using open fires in the countryside.
e Do not leave bottles or glass in woodlands. Take them home or put them in a recycling bin.
e If you see a fire in the countryside, report it at once to the Fire & Rescue Service. Leave the area.
e Report any suspicious behaviour to the police.