Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has declared a major incident in the Mournes.
Over 70 firefighters continue to battle a huge gorse fire in the Slieve Donard area for a second day.
Ten fire Appliances from right across Northern Ireland are in attendance at the blaze and people are being asked to stay away from the area to allow firefighters to do their job.
Aidan Jennings, Assistant Chief Fire & Rescue Officer said: “This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires firefighters have ever had to deal with. It’s really devastating to see an incident of this scale.
“The safety and welfare of our firefighters is my key priority. Our firefighters are working in intense conditions, in challenging terrain and I commend them for the valiant efforts to date.
“We are working extremely closely with our partner agencies both at the scene and from our Command Room. This includes the PSNI, the Coastguard, Mourne Rescue Team, the Forestry Service, National Trust, NIEA and Sky Watch Patrol.
“We thank them for their invaluable support. We have also been liaising with Minister Swann, who is responsible for NIFRS, and we thank him for his support also. All efforts, at a multi-agency level, are being made to bring this fire under control.
“I am asking the public to help us help them at this time. Please follow the advice and stay away from the immediate area.
“I want to reassure everyone that we have put contingency measures in place and if you need us in an emergency we will respond. However, I am asking everyone to be extra fire aware at this time both in your home and in particular in the countryside.
“The weather is providing a tinderbox landscape with conditions ripe for gorse fires to take hold anywhere in Northern Ireland. If you see a fire, report it immediately by dialling 999.
“Please follow our countryside fire safety advice, act responsibly and stay safe. Both deliberate and accidental fires can cost lives and we are asking that the public heed fire safety advice to protect themselves and the countryside.”
NIFRS is reminding everyone of the following safety advice:
* Extinguish cigarettes and other smoking materials properly.
* Never throw cigarette ends out of car windows.
* Only use barbecues in designated and safe areas and never leave them unattended. Keep children and ball games away from barbecues.
* Ensure that barbecues are fully extinguished and cold before disposing of their contents.
* Avoid using open fires in the countryside.
* Do not leave bottles or glass in woodlands. Sunlight shining through glass can start a fire. Take them home or put them in a waste or recycling bin.
* If you see a fire in the countryside, report it immediately to the Fire & Rescue Service. Don’t attempt to tackle fires that will take more than a bucket of water to put out. Leave the area as soon as possible.
* Report any suspicious behaviour to the Police.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Edwin Poots has visited the Mourne Mountains this evening (Saturday) to thank the first responders battling an extensive wildfire in the area.
Firefighters have been fighting the blaze since Friday and it has caused untold damage to the biodiversity, wildlife and natural habitats of the area.
Minister Poots visited the Mournes only this week to see the numerous varieties of flora and fauna and hear about the various species that inhabit the mountains.
Speaking about the fire, Minister Poots said: “Wildfires cause a devastating level of damage to our natural environment and threaten people’s lives, homes and businesses. I want to thank the first responders who are doing everything they can to get the fire under control. Many of these wildfires can be difficult for fire fighters to access safely to control the fire.
“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.
“My department has now activated its Major Emergency Response Plan and a gold command structure has been established to deal with the situation. I have instructed them to keep me informed on the situation as it develops. We will do all we can to tackle this extensive wildfire and provide all the support we can to our partner agencies.”
During the visit Minister Poots also saw all terrain vehicles fitted with mobile water sprays which his department has recently purchased to enhance the capability of firefighters to tackle such wildfires. This is the first time these vehicles has been used.
He said: “Due to the time of year and prevailing weather conditions (such as those associated with high pressure systems) an increased fire risk is deemed to exist in all areas where dead grasses and shrubs such as heather and gorse exist.
“As a consequence it is illegal for land managers to burn heather, gorse, whin or fern at this time of the year. Ongoing predominantly dry weather, with a brisk wind at times, will exacerbate the potential for wildfires to spread.”
Minister Poots added: “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.”