Fire service requests to move bonfire amid safety fears refused, report reveals
THE scale of safety concerns faced by firefighters over loyalist bonfires is laid bare in Fire Service site inspection reports uncovered by The Irish News.
In one neighbourhood, gas supplies had to be shut off as loyalist bonfire builders refused fire crews' requests to move to a safer site.
Firefighters recorded towering pyres posing a risk to numerous homes, businesses and community buildings, as well as arterial routes and electrical substations.
Crews also spotted issues over July bonfires potentially being too close to oil tanks and asbestos roofing.
Among the issues noted, a KFC in west Belfast looked at removing its guttering due to the fast-food outlet's close proximity to a bonfire.
The details are contained in bonfire inspection reports compiled by the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) last year.
Crews attend bonfires across Belfast several times in the weeks running up to the Eleventh Night and complete forms called 'bonfire inspection/site visit reports'.
The single-page forms collate details including the bonfire's location, the date and time it was visited; the materials on the bonfire; any property or utilities impacted; and whether bonfire builders were spoken to.
However, NIFRS insists they do not amount to formal risk assessments, and are instead used to examine how crews should respond to potential issues.
Around 90 inspection reports were compiled after site visits. On just 10 occasions, bonfire builders were spoken to.
At Kitchener Street off Donegall Road, NIFRS attended the bonfire site on July 7 with officials from Belfast City Council, local representatives, and Phoenix Gas.
In the section on whether advice was given to bonfire builders, NIFRS wrote: "Phoenix Gas to shut underground gas off at either end of bonfire site.
"NIFRS asked them to move the bonfire to a safer site on a grass area away from gas mains and houses but this was rejected."
NIFRS officials wrote that they would attend a community event on July 11 to "improve tensions" and create "better relations with NIFRS as we received abuse/attacks in the area throughout the year".
Crews also visited the bonfire site at Hope Street off Sandy Row where last year the pyre caused damage to an apartment block.
They noted a "huge amount of pallets" and that the nearby Holiday Inn and other buildings including the apartments could be impacted.
A "possible oil tank" at the hotel and "possible asbestos roofing" at derelict properties on Sandy Row were also noted as potential issues.
At North Boundary Street off Shankill Road, crews noted a bonfire posed a risk to signage of a nearby KFC, and that the fast-food outlet was "considering removing gutters".
At Milner Street, crews noted on July 8 a "huge bonfire" of "8,000 pallets plus".
They said nine terraced houses on the street could be impacted, as well as a road sign on the Westlink and electrical substations on the site.
However, they did speak to bonfire builders and advised them to "board up several houses" and "call NIFRS asap if concerned with radiant heat on houses nearby".
The NIFRS bonfire inspection reports were obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
In its FOI response, NIFRS stressed that it does not have any enforcement powers over bonfires and the ultimate responsibility lies with landowners.
"Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service does not have any enforcement powers in relation to bonfires and therefore does not carry out any regulatory inspection program," a spokeswoman said.
"NIFRS does however carry out annual bonfire site visits for the purpose of operational intelligence gathering to assist our operational personnel.
"NIFRS will continue to work closely with local communities and with other statutory agencies to ensure people stay safe when building or attending bonfires.
"NIFRS can offer advice on bonfire safety using the advice provided in Community Information Bulletin No 8.
"The ultimate responsibility for bonfires is with the landowner on whose land or property the bonfire is built."
Some of the bonfires looked at by firefighters in site inspection reports
- Ravenscroft Avenue car park, east Belfast: Crews warned the bonfire "backs onto substation, car business, community centre, housing and sheltered accommodation". They contacted Belfast City Council and "passed on safety concerns".
- Junction of Grays Lane and Shore Road, north Belfast: Crews recorded on July 10 that a house and shops nearby "need to be assessed". They added: "BT have already covered junction boxes as per previous years."
- Site of former Grove Primary School at North Queen Street, north Belfast: Firefighters noted an electrical substation was near the bonfire. They recorded a "large amount of combustible waste and tyres" as well as pallets, wood and furniture.
- Conway Street, west Belfast: Crews noted on July 10 a "very large and tall bonfire now fully constructed consisting of large quantities of pallets". They said: "Consideration needs to be given to houses to the rear of the site on Argyle Court."
- Glenbryn Drive, north Belfast: Fire crews recorded that the "large" bonfire was around 40 metres away from new homes being constructed.
- Dover Street off Shankill Road, west Belfast: Crews recorded the bonfire was "larger than previous years" and could impact on nearby industrial units and houses.