Northern Ireland

Eleventh Night bonfires: 'Exceptionally busy' for firefighters

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Media captionBonfire burns close to Belfast apartment block

Firefighters responded to 40 bonfire-related incidents across Northern Ireland overnight, an increase of 21% on the Eleventh Night last year.

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) said it was an "exceptionally busy" night.

Crews stopped a bonfire spreading to an apartment block near Belfast's Sandy Row, but the heat cracked its windows.

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Image caption Firefighters worked to protect an apartment building in Belfast

Bonfires are traditionally lit in loyalist areas on 11 July, marking the Twelfth of July commemorations.

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Image caption Eleventh Night bonfires in Belfast, viewed from the top of Cave Hill

Between 18:00 BST on Tuesday and 01:00 BST on Wednesday, NIFRS dealt with a total of 213 emergency calls.

During its busiest period, its regional control centre handled one 999 call every minute.

Assistant chief fire officer Alan Walmsley told BBC Radio Ulster that the two most serious bonfire-related incidents were both in Belfast.

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Media captionWater sprayed on homes near bonfire in Ravenscroft, east Belfast

They were at Wellwood Street, off Sandy Row, and at the Bloomfield Walk/Ravenscroft Avenue site in the east of the city.

Mr Walmsley said glazing was badly damaged when the Sandy Row bonfire came "very close" to a ten-storey apartment block in Wellwood Street.

Image caption The view of the bonfire from inside Victoria Place apartment block in Wellwood St, Belfast

A number of residents who were inside the Victoria Place flats at the time called the fire service amid fears about the heat of the bonfire.

Image caption Belfast City Council had withheld funding for Sandy Row's fun day on 11 July, reportedly over concerns about the height of the bonfire

"All the glazing [on the apartment block] facing the bonfire has been damaged and cracked," said Mr Walmsley.

"If our crews had not been on the scene working so hard, there is no doubt that fire would have spread into that building."

Image caption Some residents filmed the bonfire from the grounds of Victoria Place apartments

Lucy Ryan was inside the apartment complex at the time.

She told BBC News NI: "We were standing on the first floor, looking out onto the bonfire and saw it all collapse.

"Obviously we felt the heat and we saw the fire was literally coming right over to the building, so we were like 'right, we have to get out'.

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Image caption Fire crews sprayed water on the apartment block to prevent the fire spreading

"We just left down the stairwell and as we were leaving to get out, that's where we saw all the windows were cracked."

Earlier this week, Belfast City Council withheld funding earmarked for a children's street party in Sandy Row, reportedly over concerns about the height of the bonfire.

On Wednesday morning, part of Wellwood Street was closed due to safety concerns over the damaged building.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Bonfires are traditionally lit in loyalist areas on the eve of the Twelfth of July

The Trafficwatch Northern Ireland service said a lane closure "is likely to be in place in the street for a number of days between Great Victoria Street and Sandy Row".

'Punishing conditions'

Overall, firefighters were deployed to a total of 133 incidents overnight, which was a rise of nearly 50% on the same period in 2016.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Bonfires commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne

Despite this, the fire service said it "maintained normal service delivery throughout the evening, attending a range of operational incidents including property fires, special service calls and other emergency incidents".

Mr Walmsley said: "Our crews worked extremely hard last night in extremely punishing conditions and I would just like to place on record my thanks to them."

Image copyright Brendan Harkin
Image caption Many people gathered in their local areas to watch Eleventh Night bonfires

He said two fire crews were attacked as they left the scene of a bonfires in Belfast and Larne, County Antrim.

"After working so hard at Wellwood Street for a number of hours to protect properties, as our crews were leaving one of our appliances came under attack by local youths.

"The same situation happened in Larne where our crews worked extremely hard at a bonfire protecting local properties and again when they were leaving they came under attack."

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Image caption The number of bonfire-related calls increased by 21% on this time last year

No injuries have been reported. The assistant chief fire officer said he was disappointed at what were the first attacks on firefighters during Eleventh Night bonfires for five years.

'Hate crime'

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Media captionThe scene at the bonfire at Ravenscroft Avenue in east Belfast

Meanwhile, police have said they are investigating complaints about "distasteful" materials placed on some bonfires.

Sinn Féin's national chairperson Declan Kearney called on unionist politicians to condemn "hatemongers" who put a replica coffin bearing the image of Martin McGuinness, who died in March, on a bonfire in east Belfast.

Image copyright PA
Image caption A replica casket with a picture of the former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness hung on a bonfire in east Belfast

"I am directly challenging the leaders of all unionist parties to immediately disassociate themselves and their parties from this and other examples of sectarian hate crime," he said.

Images also emerged on social media of a bonfire in east Belfast draped with a banner carrying a racist message directed at Celtic footballer Scott Sinclair.

Image caption A racist banner directed at Celtic footballer Scott Sinclair was photographed on a bonfire in east Belfast

In a statement, the PSNI said: "We take hate crime very seriously and actively investigate all incidents reported to us."

However, many bonfires were held across Northern Ireland without incident on the Eleventh Night.

The annual loyalist tradition of bonfires and parades commemorates the victory of the Dutch-born William III over the Catholic forces of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

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