NIEA hosts international wildfire investigation seminar

Date published: 23 March 2017

A two-day international wildfire investigation seminar ‘Wildfires, Don’t Speculate, Investigate!’, took place earlier this week in Newry.

The first to be held on the island of Ireland, the seminar was organised to help fire protection professionals better understand wildfires in order to improve prevention measures and develop their investigative skills.

Accurately determining the origin of a wild land fire and its cause is an essential first step in a successful fire investigation. Proper investigative procedures during a fire’s initial stages can more accurately pinpoint its cause and preserve valuable evidence that might be destroyed by fire-fighting activities.

If a wild fire is caused by human action, the recommended protective measures can preserve evidence that may lead to effective and fair administrative, civil, or criminal actions.

Speaking from the seminar, Colum McDaid who leads on wildfire control initiatives in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) said: “The impact of uncontrolled wildfires on habitats in Northern Ireland is of significant concern. Given the large scale damage that uncontrolled wildfires can cause, it is essential to raise awareness of the issue and provide practical guidance to both control and prevent uncontrolled wildfires.

“Wildfires are uniquely challenging in terms of prevention, suppression and investigation. By identifying the causes of wildfires fire protection professionals can design better safeguards to prevent others, which will help reduce the loss of property and habitat in the long term.

“The vigorous and thorough investigation of wildfires is the key to catching arsonists and can be critical in identifying serial arsonists before they might move on to bigger targets.

“The law states that burning of vegetation such as heather, gorse, whin or fern must not be carried out between 15 April and 31 August, and only carried out at other times of the year under controlled and expert supervision. In addition, it should be noted that any burning within a designated site such as an Area of Special Scientific Interest may need consent from DAERA.

“As the seasons grow warmer and the evenings longer, more of us will be venturing outdoors so I’d urge everyone to heed our advice to help protect themselves and our environment from wildfires.”

Alex Held of Working on Fire International said: “Fire investigation training, in my experience, is an excellent toolkit for fire management in general. Understanding fire behaviour, its influencing factors and the related effects in the landscape are of immense value.

“Fire Investigation can be used to increase our fire understanding, to determine cause and origin, serve in court cases, deter arsonists and help to target prevention campaigns better. In general, understanding the indicators of a fire and reading its history makes you a better fire manager, leading to better decision making.”

Such is the importance of the issue of wildfire that this seminar is being followed up by a knowledge exchange visit by two wildfire officers from the Dutch Fire and Rescue Service next week. During their visit they will see at first hand the work being undertaken to reduce the incidence of wildfires. They will share their knowledge and expertise with the NIEA, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine (RoI) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (RoI).

Mark Smyth, Group Commander and NIFRS Lead Officer for Wildfires added: “During 2015/16 we attended 1,439 gorse fires and already this year we have dealt with the first gorse fires of the season. While the overall number of gorse fires has reduced in the last three years, it remains a significant community problem.

“We know that the majority of gorse fires we attend are started deliberately but given the nature of these fires and their rapid fire spread, identifying the exact origin and cause of the fire can be difficult. Learning from the experience of Fire Investigators from other countries and sharing our own experiences and techniques has been invaluable.

“Alongside partner agencies and community groups, we have been working hard to address the problem of gorse fires and educate people about the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting both to themselves, their community and on NIFRS.  We will continue to work in partnership tackle this issue and to further reduce gorse fires happening in Northern Ireland.”

The messages about the impacts of wildfires and how to avoid them are clear and simple:

  • Wildfires are not natural - they are almost always started by humans either deliberately or by being careless;
  • Wildfires put lives at risk - they could result in tragedy for people caught in the line of fire. Dealing with these types of incidents puts not only firefighters’ lives at risk but the lives of everyone in the local community. Firefighters are diverted from other emergencies and contingency plans have to be put in place to ensure continued emergency cover for towns and villages across Northern Ireland – this may result in a slight delay when responding;
  • Wildfires cost everyone – the whole community, as well as businesses that provide much needed employment. Between 2005 and 2010 £35 million was spent on fighting wildfires alone;
  • Wildfires destroy our surroundings – how they look and the wildlife in them;
  • Wildfires are illegal – deliberate setting of wildfires is a criminal offence.

If you are in the countryside:

  • Extinguish cigarettes and other smoking materials properly;
  • Never throw cigarette ends out of car windows;
  • Only use barbecues in designated areas and never leave them unattended;
  • 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 behind - sunlight shining through glass can start a fire.

If you see a fire:

  • If you see a fire in the countryside, report it immediately to the Fire & Rescue Service;
  • Do not attempt to tackle fires that cannot be put out with a bucket of water;
  • Leave the area as soon as possible;
  • If you see someone setting fires, report it to the PSNI.

Notes to editors: 

1. The seminar took place in Newry on Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 22 March 2017. It was the first seminar / course of its kind on the Island of Ireland and was jointly funded by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine. (RoI).

2. 30 attendees, including two speakers, attended from the following organisations: NIEA, PSNI, NIFRS, Forest Service, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Garda Siochana, Department of Agriculture Food and Marine, Teagasc, Wicklow Fire and Rescue Service, Clare Fire and Rescue Service, Mayo Fire and Rescue Service and Tipperary Fire and Rescue Service.

3. The seminar’s key speakers were:

  • Alexander Held (Germany), European Forest Institute and Working on Fire International. Alex is a fire management specialist, ignition specialist, wildfire trainer and fire investigator.
  • Craig Hope (Wales), South Wales Fire Service and member of Working on Fire International. Craig is fireman, certified fire investigator, wildfire trainer, ignition specialist and  internationally experienced.

4. Deputy Chief Albert-Jans and his colleague Wim Verboom of the Dutch Fire and Rescue Service will be meeting with representatives from NIFRS, NIEA, Dept of Food and Marine and National Parks and Wildlife Service and Mourne Heritage Trust to share their experiences in wildfires and will look at the implementation of the Mourne Wildfire Project.

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6. All media queries should be directed to the DAERA Press Office on 028 9052 4619 or email DAERA Press Office. Out of office hours please contact the duty press officer via pager number 07623 974 383 and your call will be returned.

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