Major blaze on Mourne Mountains 'probably deliberate'
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.
There is no indication yet of how it started.
However, Area Commander Mark Smith said that he suspected it was deliberate.
"Whilst a fire that starts at 23:00/00:00 BST comes to our attention halfway up a mountain it's hard for me to say here today that that was accidental," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme on Monday.
"So my best guess and with my experience of all the years of doing this I would imagine this was probably a deliberate fire."
Mr Smith pleaded for "people to stop lighting fires - especially over the next weeks and months".
He added: "A big issue for me is we have firefighters down the mountains when we really need them in towns where there might be some extremely serious life risk fires or there might be RTCs [road traffic collisions].
"That's the first thing that is major for us and our resourcing.
"But then whenever you see pictures of firefighters that we have they are absolutely exhausted, but they will keep going.
"And if this was a deliberate fire, if this was someone deliberately putting this alight - the only word that comes to mind is I'm angry about it - it does make me angry.
"I am extremely disappointed in whoever thinks this is fun or if they think this is a great opportunity to manage land."
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.
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".