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Friday 24 February 2017

Scale of wildfires 'unprecedented', say fire chiefs

Brian Hutton and Michael McHugh

A Defence Forces helicopter pours water on a large gorse fire in Co Donegal
A Defence Forces helicopter pours water on a large gorse fire in Co Donegal
An aerial photo from the Defence Forces shows a helicopter scooping up water to pour on the gorse fire in Donegal

The outbreak of wildfires raging across Ireland because of the lengthy dry spell is unprecedented, according to fire chiefs.

Although many have been brought under control, conditions remain dangerous for further fires before an expected break in the sunny weather later in the week.

The Army has drafted 45 troops and three helicopters into west Donegal to help fire crews battle flames spreading across Muckish Mountain, near Falcarragh.

Two of the choppers are fitted with "Bambi" buckets which are dropping up to 1,200 litres of water at a time onto the gorse blaze.

Major fires in Dungloe, Ardara and Glenties have been contained but teams are still tackling several other smaller fires, including in Buncrana and Milford.

Donegal's chief fire officer Bobby McMenamin warned landowners and the public to remain alert in the coming days.

"Conditions are still ideal for gorse fires," he said.

"We have windy conditions, very dry conditions out on the land and I would ask people to be very careful until the rain comes."

Thousands of acres have been destroyed as fires scorched gorse, bog and forests in Donegal, Leitrim, Laois, Offaly, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Meath, Sligo and Louth.

Several fires are still being tackled at Born na Mona lands between Ferbane and Edenderry, Co Offaly.

Adrian Kelly, Clare chief fire officer and vice chairman of the Irish Chief Fire Officers Association, said the pressure has been unprecedented.

"The last few days have been one of the busiest periods for the fire service nationwide in recent years," he said.

"Indeed, the geographical spread of separate incidents across the country is unprecedented. This has placed a huge strain on fire services in the affected counties."

Mr Kelly also hit out at people suspected of deliberately starting fires, accusing them of risking the lives of firefighters and the public.

In the North, the number of blazes has reduced overnight. Five fire appliances were still dealing with a large area of burning gorse and grass on the side of Knocklayde Mountain in Ballycastle. Co Antrim.

In the Mourne Mountains there is still smoke but no fires.

A handful of minor gorse fires are being tackled in other parts of the North but only one or two fire appliances have attended and the fire service said they were expected to be extinguished soon.

A spokeswoman said: "The number of fires is definitely well reduced."

Yesterday firefighters in the North battled their highest-ever number of blazes, with 282 gorse fires. On Sunday the number was 201.

Two boys, aged 10 and 15, have been questioned by police about a gorse fire in County Tyrone.

The Mournes, Ballycastle, Co Antrim, Gortin, Co Tyrone and Rostrevor, Co Down, were badly affected. Chief Fire Officer Peter Craig said it had been "phenomenally busy".

The Fire and Rescue Service in the North said the holiday weekend had been the busiest in its history. At one stage, the service was getting a call every 45 seconds.

Police said people's lives had been put in danger, hundreds of acres of land destroyed and homes and livestock threatened by the fires.

The National Trust has warned that the fires will cause "immense damage" to the Mournes.

Meanwhile, police spoke to two young people yesterday in connection with a fire in Sixmilecross. They said they were also following up reports that a man with a petrol can was seen in the Rostrevor area on Saturday evening and that two youths were spotted lighting fires on Slieve Gullion Mountain on Sunday night.

Pat Clarke, forecaster with Met Eireann, said there would be no rain until tomorrow when persistent and heavy downpours are expected along the west coast, pushing across the country during the day.

Rain may not arrive in the east, including the Mournes, until as late as Wednesday night, he said.

"That will be the pattern for the rest of the week: change and unsettled weather with showers or longer spells of rain moving in off the Atlantic from time to time," he said.

Mr Clarke said conditions would remain windy.

Met Eireann said April was the warmest on record at most stations with temperatures around three degrees higher than normal.

Despite a wet start to the month, rainfall was also below average in most places with just 40pc to 90pc of normal showers recorded. However, totals were above average at Belmullet, Malin Head and Claremorris.

In its monthly weather report, Met Eireann revealed almost all of April's rainfall fell during the first half of the month, including heavy showers and some thunder during the first week.

There were dry and sunny conditions for the second half of the month, with highest temperatures recorded on April 20 to 22 almost everywhere.

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