Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I apologise to your office that we did not get the statement to you earlier. However, given that it is a very fast-moving situation and that people from various agencies are out on the mountain assessing things currently, we wanted to keep things as up to date as possible. Hence the delay.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide Members with an update on the wildfire that took place in the Mournes on Friday and the exceptional work by a range of organisations to get it under control, including cross-party working between the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) to protect that area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).
I am sure that, like me, every one of you was heartbroken and sickened at the sight that unfolded on Friday evening. It is hard to grasp the scale of the fire and the devastation that occurred. While we do not know at this stage the full extent of the impact, we know that it will be significant for our environment and for the tourism economy that thrives on the unique natural beauty of that renowned area.
First, I pay tribute to all the responding organisations: the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service; the PSNI; Forest Service; the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA); the UK coastguard agency; the Irish Coast Guard; and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. All played an exceptional role over the weekend. The local community and businesses also provided practical support to the responding organisations. The NIFRS firefighters put their health, welfare and, potentially, their lives at risk and worked tirelessly with others in extremely difficult terrain and challenging conditions. I was able to see that at first hand on Saturday. We can never overestimate the invaluable role of our emergency services. Like us, those firefighters have families, and their dedication to their work and to society and their professionalism and bravery in such challenging conditions are outstanding. I know that we all wish to put that on the record.
The latest report is that, thankfully, there has been significant progress and the wildfire is now under control. Only the extinguishing of any flare-ups by NIFRS continues. That is the result of an impressive sense of collective responsibility in all the organisations involved that was clearly evident when I visited the site on Saturday. What we witnessed over the weekend was all the preparedness and plans for tackling wildfires coming into action. There have been many years of collaboration and training and hands-on working on incidents each spring. Those well-honed arrangements, particularly across the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, the PSNI, the NIEA and Forest Service, ensure that we can respond to major incidents such as this in a coordinated and professional way.
For my Department, I assure Members that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Forest Service, working with the Fire and Rescue Service, deployed all the required resources and equipment to the scene and took steps to ensure that additional resources were on standby and were mobilised over the weekend to respond to further escalation or new fire outbreaks. That included DAERA personnel who provided specialist subject matter expertise in forestry and ecology, helping to inform decisions on practical actions. I am pleased to say that my Department had provided additional supplies of vehicles and firefighting equipment last year to help the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to tackle fires in such rough terrain, and I witnessed those being used. Those vehicles, as well as the coastguard helicopters, helped to transport Fire and Rescue Service staff to the best vantage points to deal with the fire. I instigated the DAERA emergency response plan and gold command to ensure that everything that could be done was being done.
I fully appreciate that we will all want to know the extent of the damage caused by the fire. There is no question that there has been extensive and widespread damage to wildlife and the environment. The area affected is part of the eastern Mournes special area of conservation (SAC) and area of special scientific interest (ASSI). It is of significant biological and geological interest due to the size, quality and diversity of the habitats in the area and the presence of particular plant and animal species. It is one of the largest and most natural areas of heathland in Northern Ireland, with a number of special heaths as well as blanket bog. Notable breeding bird species in the area include meadow pipit. High cliffs with ledges hold breeding peregrine falcons and ravens. The heathlands of the Mournes also support a variety of invertebrate communities. The summit heaths support one of the largest collections of specialist montane invertebrates so far recorded in Ireland, and the summit of Slieve Donard is the only known Irish site for a number of key invertebrate species, such as the dwarf willow-feeding sawfly.
Our focus in the immediacy of the wildfire has been on actions to control it, so we have not yet assessed the actual damage. However, the damage extends over about three and a half square kilometres. It will be significant. It is likely that it will take decades to recover from and there will be a long-term loss to our biodiversity. Over the coming months, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency will ensure that there is a full assessment of the biodiversity loss and the necessary recovery action.
This major incident also highlights the inextricable link between wildfire and biodiversity loss. The burning of vegetation and trees releases carbon, contributing to climate change. In addition, carbon-rich habitats will play a key role in providing nature-based solutions to combat the effects of climate change, as healthy vegetation, trees and peatland provide enhanced storage and sequestration. That is another reason that we need to stop the fires. Given that such sites are valuable to us for that carbon capture, we must do more to safeguard and sustain them, particularly in this key year for nature and climate. The fires are bad for climate change and biodiversity, and we need to stop them occurring. Enforcement and legislation must be strengthened to deal with the problem.
A detailed assessment of the impacts on biodiversity across the impacted areas and the wider SAC will be commissioned to inform appropriate restoration interventions, depending on the extent and depth of the damage. It will consider the effectiveness of the wildfire prevention measures that were implemented in the eastern Mournes. As I said, at this stage, our efforts have been on working with other agencies to bring the wildfire under control.
We will work with others to fully understand the impact that it will have on the economy. Newcastle relies heavily on the tourism industry. The Mournes draw people from all over the world, such is their beauty. Already impacted by coronavirus, there will, no doubt, be a further impact as a consequence of the fire. What we have witnessed was a wildfire of a scale so significant that it was on the national and international news but not for good reasons. We must do everything that we can to avoid it happening again. At a time when we want to reinvigorate Northern Ireland as an attractive holiday destination, that is not the image that we want to be broadcast.
I cannot emphasise enough the need for responsible behaviour by all who use the countryside, whether for work or enjoyment. We all know that fire requires three components: fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. Oxygen is in the air and, obviously, in plentiful supply. The fuel supply is provided by the vegetation in the landscape, exacerbated by drying out during warmer, drier periods. The third component — the ignition source — is vital, and it is purely down to us. I want to turn to the strong and hard messages that we all need to support regarding wildfires.
The management of Northern Ireland’s landscapes will be a key factor in managing the wildfire risk and protecting Northern Ireland’s most precious habitats and flora. In March 2021, I established the strategic wildfire group, which is led by my Department in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and will look at a range of issues, including land management, undergrazing and overgrazing and controlled burning. We need to better tackle the fuel source issue. We must consider appropriate burning of habitat to preserve the overall habitat. That needs to deliver for agricultural productivity, conservation and vegetation and fuel management. Representatives from the relevant teams across my Department are involved, and other key stakeholders will be involved, as we work to find the best way forward. There is an opportunity to build on the work being done to manage upland habitats at DAERA’s Greenmount Hill Farm, in particular the trialling of appropriate land management methods for heather moorland to enhance habitats for nesting birds such as the hen harrier, merlin and red grouse, while reducing wildfire risk. Those methods can be examined further through the strategic wildfire group.
The risk of wildfires already existed in Northern Ireland, but wildfires are rarely natural. They are almost always started either deliberately or by reckless burning of inflammable vegetation or material. We need to think about all the measures that can be put in place to deter people from starting such fires. Work flowing from the strategic wildfire group will consider the adequacy of the current legislation and enforcement procedures and what improvements may be needed.
I reiterate the message that I gave on Saturday: it is absolutely wrong and illegal to start a fire, and we will work closely with the PSNI and others to make sure that those who cause such damage are held to account. It is not a victimless crime. Lives and property are put at risk, and the environment is damaged. The economy suffers, both in the costs of fighting the fire and the impact on businesses in the vicinity. Such fires release fine particles that have a negative impact on those with respiratory conditions. Damaged sites are no longer as attractive, which impacts on the local economy. Impacted sites are not as attractive for exercise and well-being. Valuable budget is also spent on resources for the Fire and Rescue Service, PSNI, DAERA, the coastguard and others who respond to the fire and get it under control. Those costs need to be recognised. If you see someone causing a fire, you should report them to the PSNI. It is in everyone’s interests that that irresponsible behaviour does not continue.
In 2020, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service responded to over 1,000 wildfires. Forest Service and the Environment Agency deal with numerous wildfires every year. The size and scale may differ, but they have one thing in common: a devastating impact; a potential risk to home, life, businesses and the environment; and a considerable loss to the public purse. In 2020, Forest Service staff attended 22 fire incidents. As a result of those incidents, 70 hectares of forest and over 110 hectares of peatland were burnt. So far in 2021, we unfortunately continue to see serious fire incidents. The Slieve Donard fire was one of a number of fires to cause devastating damage during the last fortnight. My Department has dealt with serious incidents in Moneyscalp forest at Tollymore, Knocks forest and Tully forest near Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, and Grange Park forest near Limavady. It was also involved in a fire that threatened the Moneystaghan block of Portglenone forest.
As a result of the continuing high fire risk, Forest Service has increased the presence and visibility of its staff in vulnerable areas to over 30 on patrol yesterday, with a further five on standby and six duty and coordinating officers. I say clearly today that we are still at risk of wildfires. Dry, sunny, windy weather increases the risk of wildfires. Those weather conditions will continue until Wednesday and will then occur on and off over coming weeks. We must all act responsibly. Every one of us, therefore, has to take personal responsibility for our behaviour. We must play our part to in protecting our environment and our communities. I will ensure that there continues to be strong messaging, via social media and other communication methods to highlight the risks and the actions that are required. Whether you are a farmer or someone out to enjoy time in the countryside, do nothing to create a fire risk, and, if you do, contact the Fire and Rescue Service immediately so that it can be put out before it spreads out of control.
In dealing with the pandemic, we have worked collaboratively to deal with unprecedented economic and social challenges. The crisis has brought the interconnectedness of our economy, environment and people into sharp focus. It has shown how partnership working is not an option but a requirement. When we face a devastating wildfire on this scale, it reminds us just how much we value and need to protect our most precious natural assets. We have to join forces to do so.
We cannot afford to take our environment for granted.
While I am glad today to be able to report that the fire is under control, it both angers and saddens me that it happened in the first place and could have been avoided. DAERA will continue to play its part in the response to the fire and in the recovery plan. I know that the Northern Ireland Executive and my Department will send out strong messages about personal responsibility for protecting our wonderful landscape and environment and will work with DAERA on all the future challenges that we face in doing so.
In closing, I once again commend the work of all those involved and the local community, which supported their efforts. We are indebted to them, as is our environment.
At the request of Mr Frew, who is not in the Chamber, I visited North Antrim last year when there was a particularly bad fire in a place called Altarichard. I think that around 360 hectares was damaged there. Individuals there made it very clear that firebreaks would have made all the difference. They also discussed undergrazing and overgrazing. If the gorse is not grazed, it dries off, and, particularly over the wintertime, it dies. When you get to the springtime, before the fresh shoots come through, you are left with all this dry stuff. Over the last couple of weeks, we have had fairly dry and windy weather. That gorse is tinder dry. If it is lit, the fire will go all over the place, and the only way to stop it is to have firebreaks. We have done that at Glenwherry hill, which the Department is responsible for a considerable part of, in conjunction with the local agriculture community. The result has been that there have not been significant gorse fires on that terrain, which is similar. It is much better to lose 2 metres of stripes as opposed to losing hundreds and hundreds of hectares of gorse land, especially given the damage that is caused to the heath underneath it, the peat, the wildlife and the biodiversity and all that. We can do that work in February and September in order to ensure that we protect the environment, not damage it.
I think that we will all agree that the sickening scenes of devastation that we witnessed in the Mournes over the last four days will live long in the memory, and I have no doubt that it will have an apocalyptic effect on our unique habitats in the Mournes.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me, on behalf of the people of South Down, I send heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the women and men of the Fire and Rescue Service, who were aided by the Irish Air Corps, for battling the fire courageously for the last four days. Their heroic effort will not be forgotten by the people of County Down.
Approximately £4·5 million has been spent by the Fire and Rescue Service on dealing with fires in the Mournes over the last number of years, and that pales in comparison with the money that has been given to local management groups such as the Mourne Heritage Trust. Does the Minister agree that that shows that we got our priorities wrong in that regard, and will he commit to prioritising a partnership approach between central government, councils, local agencies and landowners in order to ensure that necessary resources and action plans are put in place urgently so that we will not see the scenes that we witnessed over the last four days and there will be no more looking down the back of the sofa for pennies to protect our most precious habitats?
If only everything in life was as simplistic as you paint it, things would be so easily resolved. Wildfires take place over areas of expansive territory, and, therefore, the management of those areas is critical. That is why I set up the group in March this year, having visited areas that were damaged previously. I note that previous Ministers did not do that. In any event, we have set that up so that we can work across agencies.
I was in the Mournes on Wednesday. It was stunningly beautiful. We looked at some £140,000 worth of funding that had been spent and added to by the National Trust to enhance the pathways in the Mournes. The pathways act as a firebreak and reduce erosion in the area, so it is money well spent.
When I was in the Mournes, I announced a further £2 million for similar schemes for environmental NGOs. I want to raise the plastic bag levy, and that amendment will come before the House. The levy money will go back to environmental NGOs, so we will see a substantial increase if the House supports me on that.
We recognise that funding is important. It is important to be well resourced. However, the biggest issue in the heathlands is management. Undergrazing and overgrazing are problems, so we need to manage that side of it well. We also need to look at the firebreaks. I mentioned Glenwherry. There has been a significant uplift in the numbers of ground-nesting birds in that area as a consequence of the actions that have been taken. Sometimes, folk suggest wilding as a way forward: it is not. Good management is the way forward, and, in some of those areas, the management is not as good as I would like to see.
I thank the Minister for his statement today and for his significant interest in the Mournes. I know that he was there this morning, as was I, and he was there over the weekend. There was considerable disruption, and people were very fearful and sad about what they saw. Whilst I echo the thanks to the Fire and Rescue Service, I also commend the community spirit that there was, especially efforts such as those by young Charlie Thomson, which raised thousands of pounds in a very quick time to help and support the Fire and Rescue Service in the work that it has done.
Following the remarks about the comprehensive management plan that is required, can the Minister provide any funding that might not be competitive, in the first instance, but might be available for inter-agency work that would help for things that he has mentioned, such as the firebreaks? I appreciate that groups have to fill out forms in a competitive process for available funding. However, if they could come together — if some funding allowed immediate works — it might help us to get through the summer without seeing a repeat.
The Member makes an entirely reasonable request, and I thank him for his comments. We will work closely with the National Trust in particular, which has responsibility for a considerable part of the upper Mournes, to identify the scale of the damage, the consequence of that damage, the recovery plan for it and how best we can invest resource to ensure that the recovery happens as quickly as possible. That said, whatever human interventions we do now will take many years to manifest themselves, whereas the human intervention of lighting that fire took seconds to do the harm.
First, I thank the Minister for going to assist the Fire and Rescue Service on Saturday with his shovel. However, you were not the first MLA to have a shovel on that mountain; that accolade went to me many years ago.
With Members across the House, I reiterate and reaffirm our thanks to people like Charlie Thomson. The shops, not just in Newcastle but across Northern Ireland, provided pizzas, water and all sorts of stuff. I know that the fire service personnel were very grateful for that. I know that the Minister will agree that the management and safety of the crews on that mountain are paramount. I want to mention a number of people, if you will indulge me. Mark Smyth, the wildfire lead, Alan O'Neill, the incident commander on the ground, and Aidan Jennings, the gold commander of the incident from HQ, deserve our thanks today.
Minister, thank you for the strategic wildfire group that you have set up. Do you agree that, in fire prevention, education is perhaps our most valuable tool? If you do, in that context, what resources and purpose will you give to the education of those who own land and have the responsibility for managing it in these instances?
I thank the Member for a lot of valuable points. The community response that Mr McGrath mentioned was absolutely incredible. I know that a pizzeria in Belfast sent 40 pizzas up to the fire personnel. They had so much food sent to them that, had it not been for the fact that they were working so hard, they would have been rolling back down the mountain. It was a demonstration of the appreciation and goodwill towards not only the Fire and Rescue Service, which was leading on it, but lots of other services, which I mentioned at the outset of the statement. They were all working hard to ensure that this was brought under control.
The issue of education is a critical one. Again, I look forward to the recommendations coming from the multi-agency group, and I am sure that Minister Swann and I, and any other Minister who might be involved, will respond well to whatever recommendations are brought before us from that body.
I thank the Minister for the statement. I also thank him for the detail in the statement, which was a stark reminder of the biodiversity lost in the fire in the Mournes and in other fires, including the one on Cave Hill, which is close to my constituency, about a week before the fire in the Mournes.
A number of days ago, I tabled a question to the Minister on what progress the Department has made on implementing a ban on peatbog fires. I totally accept that the Department is still within the time to answer that question, but, given the urgency of the matter, will the Minister consider implementing an urgent ban on barbecues etc on protected peatlands?
We will certainly look at that. As the Member knows, one of the things that I have requested since coming into office is a peatlands strategy, and that will come forward in the very near future, hopefully. How we manage our peatlands is absolutely critical. We have the whole climate change issue, and Members know that I have climate change legislation that I wish to bring forward. I am waiting for the Executive's approval to do that. They know that we are doing this peatlands strategy. We want to ensure that we maximise our protection of peatlands, because they are critical to capturing carbon. If managed incorrectly, they are also big emitters of carbon, so we must ensure that we are utilising them correctly, capturing that carbon and ensuring that these wildfires do not take place. The Member raises a valid point about barbecues being one of the potential risks to peatlands.
I join other Members in offering praise for the Fire and Rescue Service, the PSNI, DAERA, Forest Service and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. They have all done a sterling job in trying to bring this wildfire under control, which they have successfully done. Does the Minister think that new technology could play a part in the early detection of wildfires across Northern Ireland, and will he identify the ways in which the new technology could be used by the Department to do this?
We have various types of technology that can assist in this, but, ultimately, stopping the fires happening in the first instance is the most important thing. Over recent years, DAERA has purchased equipment, which is held by Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, for immediate use, including all-terrain vehicles. Some of these are fitted with wildfire suppression units, knapsack sprayers and drip torches. The NIEA is a member of the European wildfire network and can access advice and support during wildfire incidents from experts across Europe, and further afield if necessary. We will work very hard with others in doing this.
Forest Service has significantly stepped up its surveillance and patrol programme to help to reduce fire incident levels and for early detection purposes to initiate an effective response. As well as having trained staff, the Department holds specialist all-terrain vehicles and combined air and foam dispensing units. These are made available to support and extend the Fire and Rescue Service's firefighting capacity, particularly on hostile terrain like the Mournes. Considerable investment has been made, and modern technologies that we can utilise to identify smoke at an early point may also be of assistance to us. The only thing that I will say is that these fires, once they start, spread so rapidly. As I indicated earlier, it takes many years to recover the damage; it takes only seconds to cause it.
Has the Minister had any early indications of the long-term biodiversity loss in the Mournes? We experienced the exact same episode last year in the Murrins in Tyrone. It was devastating; the biodiversity has not even nearly been fully restored since then. Does he have any assessment of the long-term impact on the richness of biodiversity in the Mournes?
As I indicated in the statement, there are species that are particular to the Mournes. A full assessment has not been done, but all the indications are that it will take many years for some of those species to come back to where they would have been. Meadow pipits, for example, are ground-nesting birds that have been laying and hatching eggs. Sadly, it is probable that hundreds of fledgling birds and eggs have been destroyed as a consequence of the fire; there was no means of escaping it. That is appalling. We would love to see more red grouse up on those hills than is currently the case. There are some pairs. We need to look at other areas where good management has encouraged red grouse back. The species damage is extensive. The gorse will grow again; it will probably recover more quickly. The other element is that there is absolutely no doubt that it released substantial amounts of carbon. It will not be as good at sequestering carbon going forward; it will take many years of rainfall for that peat to get back to a reasonable condition.
I thank the Minister for his duty of care to the firefighters and to the landowners whose property was decimated by the mountain fire incident. Our grateful thanks goes out to all the fire crews who attended the fire over the past weekend.
Minister, given the dry springs that we have had in recent years, what steps are you taking to reduce the potential impact that climate change is having on such wildfires?
We in Northern Ireland want to play our part in the climate change challenge. That is why I indicated some time ago that I was bringing forward legislation, which is now sitting with the Executive. I hope to present it in the House in the very near future. It will ensure that Northern Ireland plays its part fully in achieving its contribution to net zero for the United Kingdom by 2050. It will also ensure that we do not decimate the largest section of the economy: the agri-food sector. I hope that the Executive will have the opportunity to progress that legislation and allow me to come to the House with the energy and purpose that is required; we really need to drive those things forward. We need to move swiftly, so I do not want any delay in the Executive when bringing it forward.
I thank the Minister for the detail in his statement. I also commend the work of the men and women of the fire service in the difficult and dangerous task in which they were involved over the weekend. In addition to that, I reflect on the heartbreaking loss of biodiversity and natural habitat in the Mournes that we have witnessed. I represent North Antrim, which, as the Minister stated, has been the scene of a number of wildfires in recent years; I think of Craigs Road outside Rasharkin, Slieveanorra in April last year, and, as the Minister mentioned in his statement, Moneystaghan block near Portglenone forest very recently. Minister, over and above the work of the management plans that you detailed in your statement, will you give an assessment of whether the current legislation is robust enough to thwart wildfires?
I have asked officials to look at the legislation to identify whether enough is being done. My suspicion is that not enough is being done in terms of dissuasion. One of the problems that we have is that those places are remote by nature, with not a lot of people around, so catching someone doing it, either purposely or recklessly, is extremely difficult, as is reaching the bar for prosecution, and therein lies the difficulty. We can have tough-looking legislation, but, if we cannot catch the individuals doing it, that is a different matter. We perhaps need to speak to the judiciary about the evidence base for such a circumstance to ensure that we can demonstrate to the public that there is punishment for such activity.
As I indicated, it is not a victimless crime. Ultimately, dozens and dozens of men and women were up those mountains putting their life at risk to put out the fires. This is the ultimate wrong: lives being put at risk as a consequence of such behaviour.
I echo the words of the Minister and others in congratulating and thanking all the emergency services, from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service all the way down and through, for their amazing courage and work over the past few days, and all the agencies, local businesses and individuals who supported and helped in that effort. People are devastated to see the scenes of biodiversity being lost and of destruction in the Mournes. As someone who comes from the area, I found it particularly difficult to watch, as, I am sure, did lots of people.
The Minister mentioned the strategic wildfire group and said that he will look at the legislation, which I welcome. Can he give a timescale for doing that? Legislation will not happen overnight, so, before then, will he look at providing better information? Can he and his Department commit a budget to that ahead of this summer? Can signs be put up or some kind of communication provided to make it absolutely clear so that no one, be it a landowner or a recreational user, is in any doubt that starting any kind of fire, either deliberately or inadvertently, is unacceptable?
It is not that steps have not been taken. Many steps have been taken, and the public should know better. There are those on the farming side who deliberately burn off gorse to allow for fresh growth to come through. That does not take place at this time of year. If they are doing that, they are breaking the law and should be prosecuted. I make it very clear: any farmer who engages in that at this time of year is breaking the law and should be prosecuted.
As for the general public, I have to say that most people who go up the mountains or go walking in those areas have a love for the environment, appreciate it and are responsible. Others sometimes take a notion to do those things. They go up in their flip-flops. They perhaps drop cigarette butts that are not extinguished. They might have a wee campfire or a barbecue and do not extinguish it properly. Those are the people who really need to recognise the harm that they can do as a result of their day trip to a wild and remote region. We need everyone to pull together and recognise the harm that is done.
The only good thing that has come out of this is the fact that the public are now much more aware that those fires take place. I mentioned that there have been four fires of significance in the past two weeks. We drove five minutes just over the hill from where I was on Saturday to an area just above Tollymore, where 6 hectares of young forest had been damaged. We are trying to get more trees planted, yet, because of someone's irresponsibility, another forest has been destroyed and set back.
We need really good cooperation from all sides, and we need to be very firm to ensure that the law is strong. We also need to find a means of enforcing it, however, so that, rather than just having something on paper, it can be demonstrated to the public that the law is working and that people are being prosecuted for such activities.
Minister, thank you very much for your statement. Like others, I reiterate my thanks to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and all the other emergency services that helped put out the fire. I also thank you and Mr Swann for being available at the weekend to help out and support the people on the ground.
Minister, while travelling from Fermanagh to here, I listened to commentary on the radio about the fire. Reference was made that a number of Fire and Rescue Service personnel had quite a distance to walk to get to the source of the fire. Have you given any thought to perhaps providing vehicles that could be more adaptable than a fire engine to move personnel much more quickly to the source of the fire?
Fires in places such as these mountains are very difficult. Last year, we spent £180,000 on all-terrain vehicles, which were used at the weekend to ferry Fire and Rescue Service personnel to the locations. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has ultimate responsibility; it does not lie with my Department. However, one of the things that we could have done with last Saturday was a helicopter to do water drops on the Kilkeel side of the mountain. We had anticipated getting helicopter support from Ireland and from GB, but unfortunately, those became unavailable. The fact that there is a road leading up to a quarry enabled water to get so far, but fire personnel ended up having to beat the fire out with shovels. That is how crudely it was done. Hundreds of acres of land were on fire, and they were beating it out with shovels. When you get it out, it can flare up again, so you can see the work that was involved.
It was a warm day, there was the heat of the fire, and the fact that personnel had to wear their uniforms and personal protective equipment. That led to an immense amount of work being carried out by those individuals. Therefore, we cannot speak highly enough of their efforts. We need to ensure that they have as much equipment as possible to enable them to do their work as safely as possible. They were very challenging circumstances, but a lot of people rose to them. We talk about heroes in the context of COVID; these people were heroes working up the mountains.
Considering some of the recent wildfires, including the one outside Limavady in my constituency, has there been an estimated cost to put them out? Maybe it is too early for that yet. I commend all the firefighters and other agencies for their diligence in eradicating the fires at the weekend.
Earlier in the year, the Fire Service indicated that, over the past 10 years, about £4·5 million has been spent on gorse fires. Therefore, we really need to ensure that we minimise the amount of public money expended on them. More importantly, we need to minimise the damage done to the environment and reduce the risk to individuals who could get caught in these fires and, indeed, the risk to the personnel putting them out.
I will bring you back down to earth, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
The group identifies the risks and identifies the mitigations that it can carry out to reduce those risks. It looks at how it can respond to fires and how teams can work as multi-agency teams in their response. There is a whole series of things. Mr Butler mentioned education, and that will be a key part of it.
In all that we do, whether it is through the NIEA, Forest Service, PSNI, Fire and Rescue Service or local groups or local authorities, we must do it together and ensure that we respond in the best way possible. The issue is not going to go away, and we are not going to eliminate it, but we can certainly mitigate it and, in particular, the damage that it does.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I, too, send my gratitude to all those who helped over the weekend. Coming from a neighbouring constituency, I am a regular visitor to the Mournes. I cherish the beauty of the area and what it provides for us.
Brexit will starve Northern agencies of vital conservation management funding. We need an all-island approach to address the issue. As we have seen over the weekend, the same pressures, caused by human behaviour, have affected the kingdom of Kerry, in Killarney National Park, and the land in the kingdom of Mourne. The prescribed period for burning in the South ends on 1 March, whereas in the North, it ends on 14 April. That is far too late. We need an urgent reassessment of the applicability of brush burning, and we should invest in moving farmers and landowners away from such practices. Will the Minister, therefore, engage with his counterparts in the South and look at how we can come together to address the issue?
We probably need to put our own house in order in the first instance. Where there are cross-border fires, which do happen occasionally, the level of cooperation is fantastic. That is not an issue. Where there are resources, either in the Republic of Ireland, for a fire in Northern Ireland, or, for a fire in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, they are already available. There is already good, close cooperation. I will always encourage that because it is absolute common sense. It is not a political thing; it is a practical thing. I have every intention of helping neighbours and, indeed, of calling on neighbours when I need help in circumstances like those.
I am from a family of firefighters, and I have the utmost respect for the work and dedication of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and, indeed, of all our emergency services, particularly when they face such personal risk. I, too, take the opportunity to thank each and every one of them for their efforts over the weekend.
In the past week alone, we have seen serious fires on Cave Hill, there have been oil spills, or dumping incidents, in Donaghadee, and there has been devastation in the Mourne Mountains. Our environmental record in Northern Ireland should shame us all. The Minister tells us that there were 22 forest fire incidents in 2020 and that, this year, we continue to face many threats. How many of those incidents led to enforcement cases? While strong words and signage are good steps, what real environmental and climate education strategy is being planned?
As I indicated, whilst I support a strong legislative base, and I am happy to amend legislation to make it tougher, you can only enforce something where a case is presented. The difficulty, about which we need to be realistic, is that many individuals who engage in that activity do it away from the gaze of any other individual. It is tricky, in the first instance, to identify the individuals who engage in establishing the fires. However, it is worth our while to have a conversation with other bodies that are involved in enforcement to identify, for example, what level of evidence the courts require to prosecute someone successfully. I will not hold back, whatsoever, any prosecution that NIEA, Forest Service or any other agency brings forward. I encourage them to do that, and it is something that needs to happen on a much more frequent basis. I would like to see people punished for this awful crime, because it is an awful crime that has been committed against other human beings and against the environment.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I thank everybody for their work over the last few days in tackling this fire, particularly the Fire and Rescue Service for its critical work. It is, of course, gutting to see such devastation to an area of diverse flora and fauna. I have spoken to Fire and Rescue Service people and I know how overworked, under-resourced and overstretched they are. Given the events of the last weekend, the high number of fires that took place last year, the possibility of more fires, climate breakdown and uncertain weather patterns, how confident is the Minister that our excellent fire service is adequately resourced and financed to deal with these challenges?
That is a good question, but one that you need to put to the Health Minister, as he has responsibility for the Fire and Rescue Service. Previously in my career, I had that task, and I know that the Fire and Rescue Service, like everyone else, has its funding challenges. However, it has an excellent team of people on the ground who do magnificent work, not just in this type of situation but in many others, such as road traffic incidents and others where the Ambulance Service needs helps to rescue people. The range of work covered by the Fire and Rescue Service, and its skill and innovation in dealing with those problems, is probably not as well recognised as it should be. I, for one, greatly appreciate the work that it carries out for us.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I was grateful that you outlined the wide range of organisations and individuals involved in this incident. It is truly wonderful to see so many people put their lives on the line.
You mentioned the issue of emission of carbon as a result of the fires. I sit on the all-party group on lung health. This might be a naive question, but is there anything that your Department can do, alongside other agencies or Departments, to mitigate the impact on local residents from those emissions?
Getting the fire out as quickly as possible is probably all you can do. There is a release of particle emissions. A very fine particulate comes from the material being burnt. It gets ingested into people's lungs and, because it is such fine material, it is very difficult to get rid of. These fires are a health hazard for people; let us be absolutely clear about that. It is another reason why they should not happen.