United Kingdom — The Northern Ireland Fire Service is urging people to think about where they want their firefighters to be – up mountains dealing with deliberate blazes, or at their local stations ready to deal with genuine emergencies.
Tackling wildfires often results in resource-intensive operations, diverting fire crews and equipment from covering other incidents and potentially risking lives.
“Dealing with these types of incidents puts not only firefighters’ lives at risk, but the lives of everyone in the local community and drastically impacts upon NIFRS resources,” Assistant Chief Fire Officer Dale Ashford said.
“Around Easter time last year, we experienced unprecedented levels of operational activity – due largely to deliberately set fires ravaging our countryside right across Northern Ireland.
“We have to put contingency plans in place to ensure continued emergency cover for towns and villages across Northern Ireland – this may result in a slight delay when responding.”
The current spell of dry, sunny weather following after a mild winter means conditions are ripe for gorse fires to take hold and blazes broke out on Wednesday in the Mournes, on Black Mountain in Belfast, and in the Ballymoney and Dunloy areas of Co Antrim.
“These fires can easily spread and even a slight change in wind direction can pose a serious risk to life, property and the environment,” Assistant Chief Fire Officer Ashford added.
“It’s not just the larger fires on hillsides and mountains that impact upon resources – the smaller grass fires also need to be dealt with quickly, as they have the potential to spread and develop into bigger fires.”
Last year, gorse and wildfires were responsible for the busiest day on record for the Fire Service – Sunday 1 May – as crews spent weeks battling almost 2,000 blazes, from mid-April right through to early May.
Despite that, the number of gorse fire call-outs was reduced in 2011 compared to the previous year – down from 5,895 in 2010 to 3,897.
While firefighters say the “moderate” reduction is encouraging, they also stress that the setting of deliberate fires is still very much a serious problem.
“I am appealing for help from the community in preventing these types of fires – be vigilant for anyone starting fires deliberately and report any suspicious behaviour to the police.,” Assistant Chief Fire Officer Ashford said.
“While the majority of gorse fires that we attend are started deliberately, they can also start unintentionally by thoughtless and careless behaviour.
“Both deliberate and accidental fires can cost lives and we recommend that the public heed our fire safety advice to protect themselves and our countryside.”
As the Easter holidays approach, the Fire Service is also urging young people in particular to be aware of the serious consequences of either starting fires or making hoax calls – which can also spike at this time of year.
Willie McNamara, of the Ulster Wildlife Trust, described the fires as “a sort of environmental holocaust.”
He said it looked like Northern Ireland could be facing the same situation as last year.
“I don’t think they are wild – these are deliberate and malicious attacks on our environment.
“We’ve lost huge populations of invertebrates – the insects that live in these upland areas – and the consequences of that are manifested in what happens to the birdlife and the bird population.
“At least they can shift the ground nesting birds but what they have now lost is the cover that they rely on and the food sources that they would rely on.”
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has also urged anyone with information about who may be responsible for any deliberate wildfires to come forward.
“Whoever might be involved, local or visitor, must be identified and apprehended where the fault is human,” he said.
“Let there be no doubt – this is a serious situation. The risk to life, human and animal, is real.”