An operation to put out one of the largest gorse fires in recent years in Northern Ireland is to continue into a third day.
Firefighters have been tackling the blaze in the Mourne Mountains since Friday.
More than 100 firefighters and 12 appliances from across Northern Ireland were supported by police, the Coastguard, Mourne Rescue Team, the Forestry Service, National Trust, NIEA and Sky Watch Patrol.
Coastguard helicopters from the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain allowed fire chiefs an aerial view of the blaze to help inform tactics as well as transporting personnel to remote locations to tackle the flames.
Aidan Jennings, assistant chief fire and rescue officer, said the view from above also allowed them to plan which resources to deploy on Sunday.
“We are working closely with many partner agencies at the scene and this support has been invaluable. This is truly a multi-agency effort to bring this fire under control,” he said.
“We are making good progress however it’s been a challenging and exhausting day for everyone involved.
“Every firefighter on the mountain has been working exceptionally hard and I want to pay tribute to them. They have had to work in intense heat, carrying equipment and they have been physically beating fires out.
“They have witnessed first-hand the devastation on the mountain yet they are heartened by the support of our local community and the generosity in providing refreshments.”
Mr Jennings said with warm weather expected to continue, the conditions are perfect to allow wildfires to start and spread quickly.
He has urged the public to stay away from the area of the blaze, and also to be fire aware.
He also provided reassurance that fire crews will be available to those who need them despite the operation in the Mournes.
“I want to reassure everyone that we have put contingency measures in place and if you need us in an emergency we will respond,” he said.
“However, I am asking everyone to be extra fire aware at this time both in your home and in particular in the countryside.”
The blaze in the Slieve Donard area started in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service declared a major incident on Saturday.
Dramatic images of the Co Down peak ablaze 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.
Mr Poots commended all involved in the effort to stem the fire.
“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.
Mr Jennings said this is “undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires firefighters have ever had to deal with”.
The flames were spread from Bloody Bridge, across Thomas Mountain and the base of Slieve Donard.
The fire also extends up Slieve Donard to higher and less accessible ground.
He said: “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.”