Horrifying damage is being wreaked by one of the largest gorse fires in recent years in Northern Ireland, a Stormont minister has said.
Firefighters are spending a second day in the Mourne Mountains, battling the flames through demanding terrain.
The blaze in the Slieve Donard area started in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has declared a major incident and the public has been urged to stay away.
On Saturday afternoon, more than 70 firefighters and 10 fire appliances from across Northern Ireland were involved in the operation.
Dramatic images of the Co Down peak ablaze have sparked concern, with First Minister Arlene Foster tweeting: “This is devastating and tragic. The impact on wildlife and flora is unimaginable. Full support to those battling the flames.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis described the scenes as “deeply distressing” at one of the region’s most beautiful landmarks. He paid tribute to the firefighters at the scene.
Environment Minister Edwin Poots said horrifying damage is being done over a wide spread area, particularly to wildlife and biodiversity.
He met emergency responders at the major incident command centre in Newcastle on Saturday.
Support is expected from the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.
“The Irish helicopter is going to be operational today and then an English helicopter is going be there to relieve the Irish helicopter,” he said.
Mr Poots commended all involved in the effort to stem the fire, which is expected to continue across the day.
“This should not be happening, it is a time of the year when there is a lot of dry grass about, and people need to be ultra cautious that they don’t accidently start a fire like this,” he said.
“And for those who do it deliberately – you are doing massive damage to the environment, to biodiversity and to wildlife.”
He said the area could take years to recover from the damage.
Assistant Fire Commander Aidan Jennings said the fire is across a sizeable area from Bloody Bridge, across Thomas Mountain and the base of Slieve Donard.
He described the flames as burning to the tree line at Donard Park where firefighters are using water and foam to stop it spreading to the nearby forest and Glen River. The fire also extends up Slieve Donard to higher and less accessible ground.
“Firefighters are wearing personal protective equipment, travelling for an hour, hour-and-a-half, up the mountain, carrying equipment – you can’t get water to the scene of the fire.
“We’re working with small pumps out of rivers but predominantly it is a physical, hard, beating out job up there. We use landrovers to get crews up as far as we can, but then it’s out on foot, walking up with all of that equipment.”
He described the fire as naturally fed with the terrain, and moving quickly with the easterly wind.
Mr Jennings said the focus is currently on preventing the spread of the fire, and not on working to determine how it started.
However, he said wildfires are “predominantly caused by human behaviour”.
“I don’t expect to find that this is any different.”
South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the local community is both shocked and angry at the impact on a popular spot with visitors, particularly after the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the area every year.
Mr Hazzard described seeing the smoke on Friday, but then watching the wildfire escalate later after winds saw it spread rapidly towards Slieve Donard.
“People will have seen the shocking images, the Mournes last night looked like a range of volcanos that were erupting,” he said.
“There was shock, but also anger in the community that here we are again, another event we have to deal with. Obviously they have been dealing with Covid-19, but there was also a large flood last year and now we’re going to have to pick up the pieces after the fire.”