SUSPECTED illegal heather fires have caused panic on the Western Isles after spreading out of control towards homes and businesses.

The fires, which broke out in North and South Harris, Outer Hebrides, are thought to be part of the ‘muirburn’ tradition - which permits crofters to burn heather between October 1 and April 15.

Individuals are not allowed to start the blazes themselves, but should be done with the consent and support of a committee or landowner and with the fire service informed.

The Western Isles came as senior firefighters added their voices to wider concerns over burning uplands this warm Easter weekend.

The main fire officer for the Highlands confirmed his teams were tackling a spate of blazes across the region.

In the Western Isles power supplies were cut and roads were closed as firefighters battled to curb the flames.

Although it is unclear how the fires started, there are suspicions amongst Harris residents that the fires were set as part of the ‘muirburn’ tradition, where crofters burn the heather to encourage new vegetation growth.

Despite the legal parameters for ‘muirburn’ being set, it could prove tricky for crofters if there is no decent period of dry weather during the permitted season.

It is thought last week's deadline - combined with the recent dry weather - could have contributed to the Harris wildfire outbreak.


Wilfire on Harris

Restaurateur Sally Lessi, owner of the Anchorage Restaurant in Leverburgh, said flames came close to her property and her staff had been in tears.

As a result, she had to run between her home and business to make sure there had been no damage.

Ms Lessi said: “I am worried for public safety because of these fires which have been set and then have got out of control.

“I asked the fire officer if they were informed about fires being set and was told they had not been informed. “This is all I have what if that had gone up in flames?

“People say setting these fires is traditional, but what if we had been dead today, what would they say then?

“It is not just us but the safety of everybody.”

The Muirburn Code, set out by Scottish Natural Heritage, outlines that you must have sufficient people and equipment to control the fire properly.

It also stipulates that consent from Scottish Natural Heritage must be granted if a fire will be within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).


Firefighters tackle upland blaze

John G. Mitchel, councillor for the Na Hearadh Agus Ceann A Deas Nan Loch ward, is suspicious that the Harris fires had not been sparked by a rogue cigarette or by campfire embers.

Mr Mitchel said: “I don’t know for sure whether the fires were started by muirburn or by someone’s cigarette, but I have a strong suspicion it was part of the muirburn tradition.

"Especially as the deadline of April 15 was getting nearer, I am not a great believer in coincidences.

“I have been contacted about these fires by residents and I have asked for a report from the Council, which has a responsibility as a community body in the area, in terms of bylaws.

“I understand why crofters do this, but there has to be some sort of protocol, some safety and overview.

"There needs to be control, you can’t just set fire to the landscape and put people’s property and lives in danger.

“We have to make sure steps are taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again - next time we might not get off so lightly.”

A spokesman for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council, said: “Heather burning should be carried out responsibly.

"No individuals should take it upon themselves lighting heather fires.

“This should be a coordinated activity under the auspices of common grazings committees or the landowner and with the full cooperation of the fire service.

“Recent events in Harris have highlighted the dangers of out of control heather fires and the need to look at measures to regulate how they are supervised.

“Guidance for muirburns is laid down in the MuirBurn Code and anyone carrying out muirburns should familiarise themselves with all the requirements in law.

“If these restrictions are not followed, the muirburn activity will be in breach of statute."

The Easter weekend heatwave forecast has been warned to increase the risk of wildfires around Scotland.

READ MORE: ‘Extreme’ fire warnings for hot Easter weekend

A spokesman for Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) said: "We were mobilised to six different incidents on Harris at various locations across the island.

"These included four on April 9, one on the tenth and one on the eleventh."

Firefighters worked to contain several large scale incidents across the Highlands over the course of last week - including a large wind driven wildfire that took hold and threatened several properties, causing them to be evacuated near the village of Durness in north-west Sutherland.

Further significant wildfires across the north of Scotland presented serious risk including an incident at Paul’s Hill Windfarm near Aberlour, Moray.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service mobilised a number of fire engines to the scene after the alarm was raised at 10.50pm on Saturday, April 13. It took crews two days to bring the fire under control due to it being fanned by high winds.

Meanwhile another significant fire across the other side of Scotland saw firefighters battle a forest fire at Loch Doon, Dalmellington in Ayrshire over a total of three days.

Operations Control mobilised three fire engines to the scene after the call first came in at 6.50pm on Saturday, April 13. The public was advised to stay away from the area.

Rab Middlemiss is the Local Senior Officer or LSO for the Highlands.

He said: “The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has recently worked hard to protect communities from this spate of very challenging wildfires, with assistance from our various partners.

“And certainly, our crews here in Highland, worked through some of the most challenging conditions – covering difficult terrain and in high winds – to bring these fires under control and extinguish them, and ultimately protecting life, property and the environment.


Rab Middlemiss

Mr Middlemiss added: “They are an absolute credit to their communities and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their commitment and their professionalism.

"I would also like to note the outstanding effort from firefighters within Operations Control who worked to effectively co-ordinate the appropriate resources and particularly where those incidents were protracted over the course of several days.

“I would also like to thank, as always, the wider Highland community for their outstanding and continued support.”

Latest statistics over the last several days have shown a significant increase in the number of wildfires being experienced across Scotland.

And the whole of the country will face a heightened wildfire threat again over the Easter weekend.

In conjunction with the Scottish Wildfire Forum, the SFRS has issued a public warning which will last right through until Saturday, April 20.

Mr Middlemiss said: “As the warm and dry weather continues, so too does the risk of wildfire.

“We have seen in the last week just how challenging these fires can become - many rural and remote communities are hugely impacted by these incidents, which can cause significant environmental and economic damage.

"Livestock, farmland, wildlife, protected woodland and sites of special scientific interest can all be devastated by these fires - as can the lives of people living and working in rural communities.

“We are appealing to people to take great care – it is crucial that people act safely and responsibly in rural environments and follow the countryside code.

"Just one heat source like a campfire ember can cause it to ignite and if the wind changes direction even the smallest fire can spread uncontrollably and devastate entire hillsides."


Firefighters in the Highlands

SFRS Area Manager Bruce Farquharson is the chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum.

He said: "At the start of spring there is often a lot of dead vegetation leftover from last year - this fuel can dry out quickly with higher temperatures and lower humidity levels.

"A great many people will be enjoying the outdoors in the good weather this weekend, we urge everyone to make sure that they don’t increase the chance of wildfire – be aware of the risks and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

"Wildfires are a major threat to our wildlife and wild places. We encourage people visiting the outdoors to be extra careful, and check the advice in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code before starting a fire.

"The public can help prevent wildfires by making sure they dispose of litter and smoking materials carefully while in rural areas."

AM Farquharson added: "Human behaviour can significantly lower the chance of a wildfire starting so it is crucial that people act safely and responsibly in rural environments and follow the countryside code.”

The SFRS works closely with land managers, communities and other safety partners to prevent these incidents occurring.