'No prosecutions' over gorse fires
Nobody has been held to account for starting gorse fires which caused an estimated £28 million of damage, it has been revealed.
The Department of Environment has brought no prosecutions against those behind 11,000 blazes from 2008 to 2011, minister Alex Attwood said.
Although most are started deliberately during the driest times of the year, it can be extremely difficult to get evidence of offences because they usually happen in remote areas such as the Mourne Mountains.
Chief fire officer Peter Craig said: "The community in Northern Ireland needs to decide where they want their fire and rescue service - up mountains tackling deliberately set fires or at their local fire stations ready to deal with life-threatening emergencies and protecting our community.
"When individuals decide to deliberately go out into our countryside or up our mountains to start fires deliberately, they are putting not only firefighters' lives at risk but also everyone in the local community."
The fire service warned last year that the number of gorse blazes was up 158% (to 5,902) in 2010 compared with the previous year. That figure fell slightly in 2011. Over a three-year period to 2011 it cost £28 million, Assembly questions revealed.
It can be extremely difficult for the emergency service to deal with, deploying firefighters with equipment to usually inaccessible areas for prolonged periods working under hazardous and intense heat to control blazes. These can easily spread and even a slight change in wind direction may pose a serious risk to life, property and the environment.
From April 15-21 last year the fire service attended 250 gorse fire-related incidents - half of all fire calls for that period - and 96% were started deliberately, it said. The rate reduced later in the summer.
The information on prosecutions was disclosed to Green Party leader Steven Agnew, who said the Environment Agency needed to be better resourced to combat the threat.
He added: "Given the evidence that the fires that blighted Northern Ireland last year were started deliberately, I am deeply disappointed that no prosecutions have followed."