Northern Ireland

International experts join NI wildfires investigation

The Cuilcagh Mountain trail in County Fermanagh was closed to the public Image copyright Keith Elliott
Image caption Firefighters dealt with almost 1,000 gorse fires in May

International experts are helping to try and find out who started wildfires in Northern Ireland which devastated key protected areas earlier this year.

Dutch specialists will join colleagues from the UK to try and establish who started the fires in areas of special scientific interest in May.

They will concentrate on fires at Slieve Beagh near Clogher, Mullaghcarn near Gortin and Moninea Bog, Teemore.

They were among 983 gorse fires in Northern Ireland in May.

More than 90% of them were started deliberately.

Operation Wildfire has been set up to investigate them.

Key habitat

The area of Slieve Beagh, which was badly damaged, is a key habitat for the hen harrier, a protected bird of prey.

As well as the team from the Netherlands, there will be specialists from the European Forest Risk Facility and representatives from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has responsibility for managing wildfires.

Image caption Smoke rising from the blaze at Mullaghfad forest

Spokesman Colm McDaid welcomed the international collaboration.

He said he hoped it could lead to court cases and convictions and would deter "serial arsonists".

Controlled burning of vegetation is allowed, but it cannot be carried out between 15 April and 31 August.

In addition, landowners with ground in areas of special scientific interest need permission from the NIEA for burning at any time of the year.

Image copyright NIFRS
Image caption The fire service say over 90% of the gorse fires were started deliberately

Const Darryl Johnston said "Wildfires are illegal and the deliberate setting of wildfires is a criminal offence.

"We hope to use the Operation Wildfire investigations to determine the cause and origin of a number of the recent fires with the ultimate aim of serving in court cases and deterring arsonists.

"If members of the public have information about anyone who has started wildfires, please let the PSNI know so that we can pursue them through the courts.

"Not only do these fires cause widespread damage to our precious countryside, but they can also put lives at risk."

How to prevent fires in countryside

  • Make sure cigarettes and other smoking materials are fully extinguished
  • Never leave barbeques unattended and make sure they are fully extinguished before disposing of contents
  • Avoid lighting fires in open countryside
  • Do not leave bottles or glass in woodlands
Image copyright NIFRS
Image caption Operation Wildfire has been set up to investigate the fires

Between 2005 and 2010, £35m was spent on fighting wildfires in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in May, NIFRS Group Commander Brian Stanfield said gorse fires were "resource intensive".

"There's a high risk, the countryside is like a tinder box and our resources will be stretched if people continue at this rate to light fires," he warned.

He said people were unaware of the personal risks when they committed such acts.

"When the ground is that dry and there's a change in wind direction, the fire will move faster than the person can run and it's only a matter of time until someone is seriously injured or killed at one of these fires," he added.

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