Fire chiefs warn blazes may persist this week


FIRE CHIEFS and forestry agents have warned that raging gorse and bog fires could burn throughout today and possibly over the next few days due to continuing warm and windy weather.

The warning came as fire crews attended an unprecedented number of call-outs yesterday across several counties, including Donegal, Laois, Mayo, Monaghan, Westmeath, Meath and Louth.

Smoke from a blaze near Ferbane, Co. Offaly forced some residents to leave their homes and several roads in Offaly and Donegal were closed to protect motorists.

Fire crews in Northern Ireland have also been stretched severely after more than 1,000 requests for help in recent days as gorse fires spread across large areas of the Mourne mountains, Fermanagh and near Omagh.

The worst affected region in the Republic is the northwest, where fire chiefs say some gorse fires have been started deliberately.

On a third day of gorse and forest blazes, extra soldiers were sent from Galway and Athlone to join troops from Finner Camp in Bundoran to complement up to 100 Army personnel helping more than 100 firefighters battling blazes for the third day in Donegal.

Three Air Corps helicopters – two fitted with giant “Bambi” buckets to pour thousands of litres of water on the flames – and other choppers dispatched by Coillte to protect forests were in the air over several areas of Co Donegal.

Farmers with slurry tanks and hand-held backpack sprayers hosed water around homes and animal sheds to protect them from approaching fires across Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo.

Although people escaped injury, several homes were evacuated in the adjoining Knather and Coolcholly areas of Ballyshannon, where one house was seriously damaged.

Ballyshannon town councillor John Meehan, who moved with his family to spend Sunday night with relatives, said: “A number of families with young children felt they had to stay away overnight to avoid smoke inhalation.”

In Newtownmanor, near Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, an evacuated new house was gutted when the wind swept flames to an outside oil tank.

Gorse and bog fires also swept across west Sligo, Offaly, Louth and several parts of Northern Ireland.

Warm, dry and windy weather has helped to fan the flames of the fires. Forestry chiefs have also said last year’s severe winter had killed a lot of vegetation, making it easier for fires to take hold and spread.

A significant firefighting operation was under way in Co Monaghan yesterday after a blaze started on Sunday morning on the Bragan mountain near Scotstown on the Fermanagh border.

The fire is just one of many in the Border region in recent days, including a bog fire on the mountain that overlooks Ballyconnell in Co Cavan.

Bawnboy and Ballyconnell have been affected by the blaze.

In Donegal, helicopters hired by State forestry company Coillte were in the air spreading water, as were Air Corps helicopters.

“We are using helicopters to try and contain the fires to the forests and hills. If the weather keeps like this we can expect further outbreaks in coming days,” said Coillte south Donegal forestry manager Kieran Moloney.

Four homes in a line outside Ardara were threatened as fire raged towards them. Town traders chairman Stephen McCahill, who lives in one of the houses, said: “The local community saved my home and three of my neighbours’ houses. I could see in the distance a mile away there was a blur of half a mile of fire coming towards the house.

“I went to town to organise more help. When I came back people wouldn’t allow me to my own house.

“The fire had reached the road within 10 minutes and our four houses were right in line with the fire. There were flames 30ft high right up to my garden.

“Farmers came from everywhere with their slurry tanks and their water tanks as the fire services were actually stretched elsewhere.”

The worst blazes continued in west Donegal, although firefighters were also out again combating flames in the Inishowen and Fanad peninsulas.

Roads linking Dungloe and Lettermacaward, and Dungloe and Doochary were closed and warnings were issued to the public to remain away from those areas.

Danny Bonner in Cloughwilly, west Donegal said small farmers were left defenceless from Saturday evening until Sunday afternoon when troops joined firefighters.

“There was no plan on the part of Government to defend the environment and small farmers are losing their livelihood,” he said.

Donegal County fire chief Bobby McMenamin, said some fires had been started deliberately.

“One quad rider was seen going up a hill in Fanad; next thing the hill was ablaze,” he said.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old youth yesterday on suspicion of setting fires in the Aghnagar road area of Sixmilecross, near Omagh, Co Tyrone.