Calls have been made for an all-island strategy to tackle gorse fires as firefighters tackle an uncontrolled wildfire spreading across the Mournes this weekend.

Fire crews began tackling the blaze on Friday morning (April 23), hoping it could be contained. However, with some light winds, caused the blaze to spread down the eastern slope of Leganabruchan and eventually into Donard Forest in Newcastle, Co. Down.

The flames were visible almost 30 miles away in Greyabbey, on the Ards Peninsula. PSNI have urged the public to avoid travelling to the area.

“It’s vital that we give our Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service colleagues space to work as they continue to tackle a major fire in the Mournes,” a police spokesperson said.

A statement issued by Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) this morning (April 24) read: “NIFRS is currently escalating firefighting operations in the Mourne Mountains. A large number of resources will be in attendance. We would kindly ask members of the public not to gather in the immediate area and request that walkers avoid the Newcastle side of Slieve Donard.”

‘Rarely natural’

Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots visited the Mourne Mountains to thank the first responders battling an extensive wildfire in the area.

Minister Poots said: “Wildfires cause a devastating level of damage to our natural environment and threaten people’s lives, homes and businesses. Many of these wildfires can be difficult for firefighters to access safely and I want to thank the first responders who are doing everything they can to get the fire under control.

“Just this week, I visited the Mournes where I was struck by the beauty of the area and all the life forms that exist there. I was pleased to see the ongoing work to maintain the environment and biodiversity in the area. I am shocked to see the devastation caused by this fire.

“Wildfires are rarely natural. They are almost always started either deliberately, or by reckless burning of flammable vegetation or material.

“It is important that we all play our part in protecting our environment, communities and vulnerable citizens. I’m urging the public to take extreme caution because wildfires could result in tragedy for people caught in the line of a fire – don’t burn waste or vegetation in our countryside at this time of the year.”

‘Time for an all-island strategy’

SDLP South Down MLA Colin McGrath said: “By the afternoon of Friday there were some 60 brave fire-fighters doing their best to maintain the blaze. I pay tribute to their bravery and determination. Sadly, this will not only have a devastating impact on the natural landscape but the local economy of Newcastle that relies so heavily on the tourist product we associate with the Mournes.”

“Having met with the NIFRS it is clear that they are doing everything they can to combat these blazes. However, the issue of gorse and wildfires is something that affects our entire island and our response to it cannot just be a reaction to every outbreak of fire but a measured response that attempts to understand why these fires are happening so often and ultimately to prevent them.

“That over the last four years we have had three years with continuous fires tells me we need to act now for the health and wellbeing of all our people.”

McGrath said he would table an urgent oral question in the Assembly on Monday, to the Health Minister asking why Northern Ireland does not have such a strategy.

McGrath said plans to ask if the Minister will commit to one which would specifically address the prevention, response, post investigation analysis and, if necessary, what repercussions there would be for those who perpetrate these fires.

“This issue is an all-island one. While gorse and wildfires do not recognise borders, they do recognise barriers,” he said.

“We have seen instances in the past where the blocking of landmasses has ensured that fires were not able to get a grasp where they would have caused untold damage had this not been the case.

“It is my firm belief that if we establish an all-island strategy to address this, then it will save the taxpayer millions of pounds in the long run, to say nothing of how we can educate our young people in the need to properly preserve our local environment.

“Here, at the foot of the Mournes, we have this beautiful natural surrounding that we have a responsibility to look after as much as possible. If we do not, then such wildfires will only continue and get worse. This is not acceptable,” McGrath concluded.