Firemen battle for 48 hours to curtail blaze

Firemen battle for 48 hours to curtail blaze

20 May 2020

A RAGING gorse and forestry fire at the Dolly’s Brae area near Castlewellan, which ravaged a significant area of land last weekend, was started deliberately.

The blaze — which started at the Leitrim Road last Friday afternoon close to the rear of Castlewellan Forest Park — was tackled by almost 50 firefighters and resulted in significant environmental damage.

Firemen had to battle challenging conditions over almost 48 hours with the the blaze resulting in part of the forest park and a number of neighbouring roads being closed to the public. 

There were also reports locally that some residents had to be evacuated from their homes as a precaution.

The fire, which is believed to have destroyed a number of birds’ nests and killed a number of animals, was eventually put out on Sunday.

The Fire and Rescue Service has confirmed that the blaze was malicious. The organisation also appealed to people to stop lighting fires in the countryside.

Fire chiefs say that the recent dry weather and eastern winds resulted in perfect conditions for wildfires “but deadly for wildlife and made life difficult for the emergency services”.

They confirmed that almost 50 personnel attended the Castlewellan fire, including seven pumping appliances and specialist teams, with the efforts of the Fire and Rescue Service praised by South Down MP Chris Hazzard.

Area Commander Mark Smith said that during April there were over 500 incidents of wildfire, gorse-related vegetation-type fires across Northern Ireland, confirming that most wildfires in the country are “human made”.

He continued: “We don’t have really natural wildfires in Northern Ireland. We normally have human intervention. I look at them being deliberate in that someone has actually deliberately lit a fire but sometimes it’s then accidental or malicious.

“It’s accidental in that they’ve lit a fire and it’s got away from them and away it goes. They’re burning maybe some cut down vegetation at the end of the season and away it goes or there’s sometimes that malicious side of being a deliberate fire where someone’s just determined to light a fire. Basically, I see that as countryside vandalism.”

Mr Smith said firefighters tackling the blaze were assisted by the PSNI, SkywatchNI, Mourne Heritage Trust and a number of other agencies.

He said the response to the blaze meant that the Fire and Rescue Service had to move other firefighters into more high risk fire areas in towns and cities.

He said the fire took a lot of work to contain, explaining that firefighters had it surrounded and while they were soaking the ground, the fire was burning below ground, following plant roots, peat and using the underground oxygen system to keep going.

He said the blaze was “popping up in spots” away from the obvious fire and each one those had to be put out.

“This is not the time to be lighting fires of any sort outside,” Mr Smith told the media. “We would ask people not to light fires until we can say we have more suitable weather.

“Lighting fires of any type outdoors, whether it’s farmland burning or anything else, is just not acceptable. We are watching a lot of land here destroyed and with it has gone nesting grounds, burrows and a lot of young animals. It’s devastating.”

Slieve Croob councillors Andy McMurray and Alan Lewis praised the Fire and Rescue Service response, but expressed concern at the devastation the blaze left behind.

Cllr McMurray said firemen were at the scene of the fire until Sunday afternoon and praised everyone involved in the emergency response, including members of the community who provided those battling the blaze with refreshments.

He continued: “It was apparent that there is a great affinity with the forest. Some of those responding came from as far away as Ballymena but who would have visited the forest for their own recreation over the years.

“But the positive response to the fire is however tinged with great sadness. There has been a lot of destruction at the back of the forest and as we are in the middle of breeding season for birds, many nests will have been either abandoned or destroyed.”

Cllr McMurray also revealed that a patch of Scots Pine was also engulfed by flames and said it will be a “shame if such majestic trees have been destroyed”.

Cllr Lewis said he was “shocked” by the weekend fire and expressed concern about a number of recent fires in the Mournes area which were started deliberately.

He said the message which must go out is that under no circumstances should fires be lit near forest parks or areas of natural beauty.

Cllr Lewis added: “A seemingly controlled fire can spiral out of control within minutes causing widespread damage, endangering wildlife and local residents.”