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Fire starter could face prosecution after blaze destroys thousands of acres of land in Co Down

 

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NI Fire and Rescue Service at the Scene of a large gorse fire on a steep hillside at Dollys Brae Car Park, Leitrim Road Castlewellan at the back  of Castlewellan Forest Park County Down on Friday Evening. Photo Paul Byrne

NI Fire and Rescue Service at the Scene of a large gorse fire on a steep hillside at Dollys Brae Car Park, Leitrim Road Castlewellan at the back of Castlewellan Forest Park County Down on Friday Evening. Photo Paul Byrne

Jim Wells

Jim Wells

NI Fire and Rescue Service at the Scene of a large gorse fire on a steep hillside at Dollys Brae Car Park, Leitrim Road Castlewellan at the back of Castlewellan Forest Park County Down on Friday Evening. Photo Paul Byrne

The first prosecution in Northern Ireland over thousands of acres destroyed by a deliberately started fire could be on the cards.

A police probe is under way into the blaze earlier this month in Castlewellan, Co Down, which took firefighters more than 48 hours to put out.

And an MLA claims Forestry Service officials know the identity of a landowner who recently lit a fire which got out of control.

The DUP's Jim Wells has raised questions over the May 15 blaze with party colleague, Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots.

 

Hundreds of birds were burned in their nests, along with other animals in the blaze which also damaged part of Castlewellan Forest Park.

The Fire and Rescue Service, which had to deploy around 50 personnel to fight the fire - one of dozens during one of the driest springs on record - confirmed the fire was started deliberately.

Mr Poots' department confirmed to Sunday Life that a police probe into the fire is already under way and forestry staff have been involved.

"The PSNI is investigating the circumstances with regard to the fire and Forest Service is assisting with their inquiries," a statement said.

The department also added that 2.2 hectares of young plantation woodland was damaged in the fire which lasted over a three-day period.

And Mr Wells said: "Well over 90% of these gorse fires are started deliberately.

"During the winter time farmers and landowners are allowed to do this legally, but not during the nesting season.

"It is a legitimate management tool. They deliberately set fire to the gorse to burn all the vegetation to encourage the grass to grow for good grazing land.

"But there is now a golden opportunity here to demonstrate that this is not acceptable. I believe sufficient evidence exists."

The former health minister has tabled two written questions in the Assembly asking Mr Poots for the financial cost of the operation to put out the Leitrim fire, and if his staff are aware of the identity of the person who started the fire close to Castlewellan Forest Park on May 15. Mr Wells said: "Here we have a deliberate act and Forestry officials know the identity of the culprit. Up until now the authorities have not been able to find those guilty of carrying [fires] out. But here they have."

The South Down MLA is also writing to the PSNI who would complete a file for the Public Prosecution Service.

"I am calling for a prosecution and I will do all I can to help achieve that. But the individual should see their single farm payment withdrawn, at the very least," said Mr Wells, who worked for the National Trust for many years. Speaking to the media at the time of the blaze, Fire Service Area Commander Mark Smith said the fire took a lot of work to contain, explaining that firefighters had it surrounded and while they were soaking the ground, the blaze was "popping up in spots" away from the obvious fire.

"This is not the time to be lighting fires of any sort outside," said Mr Smith. "We would ask people not to light fires until we can say we have more suitable weather.

"Lighting fires of any type outdoors, whether it's farmland burning or anything else, is just not acceptable. We are watching a lot of land here destroyed and with it has gone nesting grounds, burrows and a lot of young animals. It's devastating."

He added: "We don't have natural wildfires in Northern Ireland. I look at them as being deliberate in that someone has actually, deliberately lit a fire but sometimes it's then accidental or malicious.

"It's accidental in that they've lit a fire and it's got away from them and away it goes. They're burning, maybe they've some cut down vegetation at the end of the season, and away it goes."

Belfast Telegraph