Huge gorse fire was deliberate, say fire crews

May 8, 2017

A huge gorse fire that forced dozens of residents from their homes and closed a number of roads in Newry on Friday night is believed to have been started deliberately, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) has said.

Fire crews were called to the scene shortly before 9.00pm, at which stage the hill behind Barley Lane was well alight, the flames threatening the nearby St. Mary’s High School.

More than 60 firefighters, some from as far away as Belfast, tackled the blaze as it raged perilously close to the school and nearby homes from which residents, some of whom were in their nightwear, had to be evacuated.

Dozens of onlookers gathered to watch the scene unfold while distressed residents, some visibly upset, looked helplessly on.  Meanwhile, firefighters had to move people back for their own safety as burning embers and ash rained down on houses and cars.  One eyewitness described the scene as “quite dramatic” as residents were running across the street and others searching for missing pets.

Fire crews battled for more than six hours before the blaze was finally declared extinguished around 2.00am.

Sinn Féin Councillor Valerie Harte thanked the fire crews for their “prompt attendance and sterling efforts”, and said that, at one point, there was “huge fear and concern” that the fire would engulf homes.

Earlier on Friday, the NIFRS revealed that it had dealt with 221 gorse fires in the previous five days, 92% of which were started deliberately.

Area Commander, Maurice Rafferty said the current spell of dry, sunny weather had “provided a tinderbox landscape” for gorse fires and he appealed to the public to act responsibly.

“We are appealing to everyone within the local community to be aware of the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting.  It ties up our vital resources from other more serious incidents and potentially puts people and property at risk,” he said.

“Tackling gorse and wildland fires is extremely challenging for us. It means deploying firefighters and equipment to remote locations. This can be for prolonged periods of time with our crews working under hazardous and intense heat to bring the fires under control. These fires can easily spread and even a slight change in wind direction can pose a serious risk to life, property and the environment.”