Major blaze on Mourne Mountains described as `one of the most challenging' ever
A MASSIVE firefighting operation to tackle a major blaze on the Mourne Mountains was scaled back yesterday after a three day battle to bring it under control.
In what was described as "undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires" ever dealt with, the major incident status was de-escalated at about lunchtime on Sunday.
Firefighters moved to working on extinguishing hotspots. Thirty firefighters and four appliances arrived at the Co Down peaks at first light on Sunday.
Health Minister Robin Swann visited the scene in Newcastle, Co Down, later in the day.
Crews have been at the scene of the major operation since the blaze broke out on Friday.
Northern Ireland's assistant fire chief Aidan Jennings paid tribute to all the support given to the fire service in recent days.
Their efforts were supported by police, the Coastguard, Mourne Rescue Team, Forestry Service, National Trust, NIEA and Sky Watch Patrol.
Coastguard helicopters from the Republic and Britain allowed fire chiefs an aerial view of the blaze to help inform tactics, transport personnel to remote locations and plan resources.
Mr Jennings thanked all for their support and firefighters for their hard work and resilience in "extremely difficult conditions".
"Your dedication and commitment in working tirelessly to resolve this incident and maintain our response across Northern Ireland during this period is at the very heart of what it means to be a firefighter," he said.
He added his thanks to local people and businesses for food and refreshments: "Your support has been a great source of encouragement for our firefighters and partner agencies as we work to resolve this incident."
On Saturday, Mr Jennings said the blaze was "undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires firefighters have ever had to deal with".
He said fire crews would be available to those who need them despite the operation in the Mournes, but asked the public to be extra fire aware.
"I want to reassure everyone that we have put contingency measures in place and if you need us in an emergency we will respond," he said.
"However, I am asking everyone to be extra fire aware at this time both in your home and in particular in the countryside."
The blaze in the Slieve Donard area started in the early hours of Friday.
It was declared a major incident on Saturday, when flames spread from Bloody Bridge, across Thomas Mountain and the base of Slieve Donard, as well up Northern Ireland's highest peak, to less accessible ground.
Yesterday, the focus of fire-fighting efforts were in the Bloody Bridge area following overnight winds.
There is no indication yet of how it started.
As dramatic images of the mountains ablaze emerged First Minister Arlene Foster tweeted: "This is devastating and tragic. The impact on wildlife and flora is unimaginable. Full support to those battling the flames."
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill voiced "huge admiration" for the firefighters and all responders.
Environment Minister Edwin Poots visited the scene on Saturday.
He described horrifying damage is being done over a widespread area, particularly to wildlife and biodiversity.
Health Minister Robin Swann who visited yesterday said he was "shocked and deeply concerned" by images of the devastating fire spreading across the Mournes.
“Our firefighters are working hard in extremely challenging circumstances and I want to thank them on behalf of the community for their bravery and commitment," he said.
"They are taking huge risks to bring the fire under control and make the area safe.
"I would appeal to the public to help NIFRS in their vital work by avoiding Newcastle and the Mournes and allowing the crews to do their job safely and effectively".