Firefighters tackle 24 wildfires in Hebrides in three days as crews continue work with landowners on muirburn code

Firefighters tackled 24 major wildfires in the Hebrides in three days, as the fire service assured they will continue to work with land managers to encourage following of the muirburn code.

Scott Mackenzie, a gamekeeper on Skye, told The Scotsman on Sunday that some of the muirburns - mainly heather burning which typically takes place between October and April - had "spread away” from crofters trying to manage them on the island.

Recent dry weather left much of the land timber dry and a shortened muirburn season, due to Covid-19, may also have been a factor in the build-up of more flammable material providing fuel for potential fires.

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Iain Macleod, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service local senior officer for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, said: "Between Thursday and Saturday of last week, our personnel responded to 24 significant incidents of wildfire, the majority of which were in the Outer Hebrides and Skye with some burning along two-kilometre fronts and covering large areas.”

He said crews “worked tirelessly” to bring the fires under control and, in some cases, moved from one incident to the next without returning to the station.

Firefighters in island communities are retained, meaning they have other jobs and respond to incidents on call.

Malicious fires 'not ruled out’

Mr Macleod continued: "While the cause of each fire is unclear, we know that many fires are often the result of controlled burning which has grown out of control.

Firefighters in Skye were busy over the weekend fighting multiple wildfires. Pic: Dunvegan Fire Station

"Strict parameters are set for landowners during the Muirburn period and these include considering factors such as the wind, any wildfire danger warnings that are issued, the nature of the material and having measures in place to prevent escalation. Failing to follow these can lead to rapid fire spread beyond the planned area.

"In addition to this, the Muirburn season last year was shortened due to Covid-19 and this has potentially led to a build-up of flammable material, resulting in more fuel for potential fires.

"Malicious setting of fires cannot be ruled out entirely in some instances and we will work with our Police Scotland partners to investigate this wherever it is suspected.

“Our firefighters are part of these rural communities and we understand the importance of muirburning in land management practices and we will continue to work with land managers and encourage them to follow the Muirburn Code.”

The extreme wildfire risk for the west coast of Scotland was in place on Thursday and Friday last week.

On Sunday, police in Skye also appealed to the public for information about a large hill fire which started in the Moll area on Friday, causing damage to fencing and resulting in “dangerous road conditions” and the closure of the A87 road.

Superintendent Lindsay Tulloch said police are aware of recent fires in the Western Isles, Skye and Sutherland and enquiries are ongoing to establish the circumstances.

She said: "We would urge people to be responsble in the countryside at all times and particularly in areas which are at risk of wildfire.

"Such fires cause considerable damage to the land and wildlife, as well as placing extra pressure on the emergency services.

"We would also urge people to be aware of the Muirburn Code and to be mindful of any restrictions in place under the current coronavirus regulations."

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