Mourne Mountains blaze started deliberately, says fire service

The major gorse fire in the Mourne Mountains is believed to have been started deliberately, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) has said.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 10:32 pm
Updated Monday, 26th April 2021, 10:33 pm
Photo taken with permission from the Twitter feed of @DeeJayDready showing a huge gorse fire spreading across the Mourne Mountains in Co Down, as seen from Newcastle, Co Down. The fire in the Slieve Donard area has been ongoing since the early hours of Friday morning, with up to 60 firefighters and 12 appliances battling the blaze. Issue date: Saturday April 24, 2021.

The fire in the Slieve Donard area was declared a major incident by the fire service on Saturday and it took more than 100 firefighters until Sunday evening to get the blaze, which covered 3.5 square kilometres, under control.

The PSNI has appealed for anyone with information about the fire to come forward.

Detective Inspector Handley said detectives were working to establish the circumstances of the blaze.

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“It is believed the fire may have started off the main walkway along the Bloody Bridge path, possibly late on Thursday night (April 22),” DI Handley said.

“We want to hear from anyone who was in the area, and who may have information which could help our investigation, to get in touch with us.

“In particular, we want to hear from the owner/occupants of a black/dark coloured saloon-type car that is understood to have been present in the Bloody Bridge car park when NIFRS arrived just after 1am on Friday morning as they may have vital information which could assist us.”

Anyone with information can call 101 and quote reference 491 of 23/04/21 or submit a report online using the PSNI’s non-emergency reporting form.

Northern Ireland’s chief fire and rescue officer Michael Graham said firefighters had worked in “intense conditions” to extinguish the fire and prevent it spreading to threaten human life or property.

Mr Graham said: “While I am proud of the work our people did, we are all saddened by the destruction this fire has caused to our natural environment.”

He thanked everyone involved in assisting them and said he had “simply lost track” of the number of people who had contacted the team offering help.

Firefighters used beaters, jets and specialist 4x4s to extinguish the flames.

Their efforts were supported by police, Coastguard, Mourne Rescue Team, Forestry Service, National Trust, NIEA and Sky Watch Patrol, as well as coastguard helicopters from the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.

He added that while they were responding to the fire on the mountain, firefighters also responded to 400 other incidents.

“For everyone out there who watched the fire this weekend with horror, there is one thing we ask of you – help us prevent these fires starting in the first place,” he said.

“Don’t start fires in the countryside. Don’t be careless with smoking materials or glass. Don’t be careless with barbecues or any other flames.”

The National Trust said it was “devastated” to see the impact the fire has had on the fragile habitat of upper Slieve Donard.

“This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been completely destroyed and will take years to recover,” it said.

“The heather landscape, which is a designated Special Area of Conservation, once alive with flora, fauna and diverse wildlife is now charred earth and ash.”

The trust thanked everyone involved for their “incredible efforts” in bringing the fire under control.

“Without their efforts the fire could have reached the upper blanket bog area, increasing the damage to the biodiverse environment on the mountain,” it continued.

The trust appealed to anyone walking in the countryside to stick to the paths to prevent ground erosion, bring their litter home and not to light fires or barbecues as they pose a “huge risk” to nature, wildlife and local communities.

Environment Minister Edwin Poots, who visited the scene on Saturday, told the Assembly on Monday he was “heartbroken and sickened” at the sight that unfolded.

“It is hard to grasp the scale of the fire and the devastation that occurred and, while we do not know at this stage the full extent of the impact, we do know that it will be significant for our environment and our tourism economy that thrives on the unique natural beauty of this renowned area,” he said.

Mr Poots paid tribute to all of the responding organisations and said that over the coming months, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency will ensure that there is a full assessment of the biodiversity loss and the necessary recovery action.

“It is absolutely wrong and illegal to start a fire and we will work closely with the PSNI and others to make sure that those who cause such damage are held to account.

“This is not a victimless crime – lives and property are put at risk and the environment is damaged.”

Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard has called for a “full and rigorous investigation” into the causes and consequences of the fire.

The South Down MP said: “While nobody will be surprised that the fire was deliberate, the fact that somebody would act in such a reckless and careless manner is sickening.

“Fundamentally a cultural shift is required on the burning of land for agricultural purposes.

“Not only is the current prescribed period of burning far too late in the year (mid April) but we need to urgently reassess the environmental impact of burning – especially peatland areas which play a vital role in the storage of carbon.

“So the Environment Minister must look urgently at the issue of the burning of peatlands and look to promote unprecedented rewilding and ‘high nature value’ schemes to benefit farmers and landowners.”

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