Investigation launched after gorse fires 'started deliberately' - five appliances tackle blaze
Firefighters were tasked to deal with a major gorse fire last night - just hours after revealing they have fought no fewer than 221 similar blazes since Monday.
The major fire broke out close to homes and St Mary's High School in Newry at around 8.50pm.
Five fire appliances rushed to the scene and 25 firefighters tackled the blaze as shocked locals looked on.
It was not known last night how the fire started.
Yesterday afternoon, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) revealed it has attended 221 gorse fires since the start of May - compared to just 19 for the same period in 2016.
And, according to statistics, the vast majority of these fires (204) were set deliberately.
Most of the blazes (177) were in either the Southern or Western Command areas, and the busiest fire stations in the province have been Downpatrick and Lurgan - who dealt with 26 and 22 incidents respectively in just four days this week.
NIFRS said that having to deal with these type of incidents not only puts the lives of firefighters at risk, but endangers the lives of everyone in the community, as well as placing strain on emergency service resources.
NIFRS Area Commander Maurice Rafferty said the current spell of sunny weather has created tinderbox conditions and increased the capacity of the fires to take a serious hold and he called on young people in particular to exercise responsibility.
"Tackling gorse and wildland fires is extremely challenging for us," he said. "It means deploying firefighters and equipment to remote locations for prolonged periods of time with our crews working under hazardous and intense heat to bring the fires under control.
"The fires can easily spread and a slight change in wind direction can pose a serious risk to life, property and the environment. It's not just the larger fires on hillsides and mountains that impact upon resources, the smaller fires involving grass and bushes also need to be dealt with quickly as they have the potential to spread into bigger fires. Attending such incidents puts additional pressure on our people and our resources."
SDLP councillor in Lurgan Joe Nelson - one of the worst affected areas - said: "I represent a rural area just outside Lurgan and it is abnormally dry for this time of year. People go into moss land in the area to burn rubbish and that can inadvertently start fires as well as fires being started maliciously. I would remind people to act responsibly and do not dump illegally, which may create the opportunity for those intent on committing arson. It's often the case that the Fire Service cannot access these areas properly.
"I'd also ask for anyone who witnesses this to report the behaviour to the PSNI immediately."
Meanwhile, the NIFRS also reminded people to be careful not to unintentionally start fires by properly disposing of cigarettes, correctly extinguishing barbecues, not setting open fires in country areas and not to leave glass implements in grass or woodlands as this can ignite the surrounding areas.
Gorse fires have been reported since the beginning of May, compared to just 19 for the same period last year.