Wildfires cause £100,000 damage in Scotland

Thousands of heathland fires raged across swathes of the UK today, as the record-breaking dry spell continued.

Strong winds and very little rainfall hampered the efforts of firefighters and emergency workers, as Prime Minister David Cameron praised their work.

The hottest April on record, which saw only 21% of the expected rainfall in England and Wales, has caused vast areas of parched, tinder-dry land to go up in flames.

It is believed most of the fires, which have caused widespread damage to scenic beauty spots and conservation areas, were started deliberately.

Much-needed rain has started to fall in Ireland, but it will not drift into Scotland and England until later this week, forecasters said, and steady winds are unlikely to die down.

In the worst-affected regions helicopters were brought in to drop water as hundreds of firefighters are tackling the fires on the ground.

Crews in Northern Ireland have fought more than 1,000 gorse and forest fires in the past four days, in what chiefs said was the busiest time in 30 years.

Around 200 personnel have battled 255 fires in 31 locations since Tuesday, according to the province's deputy chief fire officer Chris Kerr.

Mr Kerr appealed to the public not to go near gorse land or grassland areas, a message echoed by officials in all affected areas.

There were also calls for people to be vigilant and avoid discarding cigarette ends, lighting barbecues or other recreational activities which may result in fire outbreak.

In the Scottish Highlands a helicopter was used to waterbomb an area in Inverkirkaig, while strengthening winds in Lochailort caused flames to flare up.

Another wildfire broke out in Newton of Ardtoe in Salen and two fire engines from Fort William are at the scene.

The National Trust for Scotland said at least £100,000 of damage had been caused to its forest regeneration project in Torridon and Kintail.

A fire in heather and gorse at the Queen's estate in Scotland, which started on Monday, is now under control.

In Ireland 40 soldiers and three Air Corps helicopters supported fire crews in Donegal as they battled wildfires for a sixth day.

Shane McEntee, junior minister in the Department of Agriculture, said irresponsible and criminal behaviour has started fires costing the state millions.

He called for people living in rural areas, farmers and forest owners to work with forestry inspectors, fire crews and gardai to identify who started blazes.

"I am absolutely appalled at the flagrant disregard for the law, property and people's lives due to the irresponsible and criminal behaviour of a small minority who continue to set land fires around the country," Mr McEntee said.

In Lancashire, crews battled blazes in Belmont and Simonswood, and firefighters attended the Swinley Forest area of Berkshire where a number of blazes broke out.

David Cameron paid tribute to the emergency services during Commons questions.

He was asked by Conservative MP Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) if the necessary support would be provided by the Government if needed.

The Prime Minister said: "I certainly join my honourable friend in praising the fire service and the armed services that will be taking part in this difficult endeavour.

"As he knows, there are well tried and tested procedures to make sure that central Government stands behind local government when there are excessive costs and I will very happily write to him about this issue."

Helen Rossington, a forecaster from Meteogroup, the weather arm of the Press Association, said: "The wind is going to be pretty much what we have had over the last couple of days, which has been a fairly moderate speed and it will be moving from easterly to south easterly over the next few days.

"It will be bringing in warmer air, but there will be a greater risk of rain, which is a good thing on one hand, but not on the other."

She added: "There is rain coming in from the west in the south and the high pressure that's been giving us the nice weather is drifting off to the North Sea.

"There is rain across Ireland now, so there will be rain in parts of Scotland on Thursday and only the odd shower across the rest of the UK.

"It's going to be Friday and Saturday when we get the real chance of rain in England."

Environment experts also warned of the damaging effects the fires will have on soil, vegetation and wildlife.

Dr Fred Worrall from the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, said there is a much higher chance of wild fires during this time of year as the vegetation is not fully green and burns more easily.

He said: "The great intensity of these wild fires destroys not only the surface vegetation but can burn into the soil causing much greater longer term damage.

"Compounding this is the fact that it is fledgling season and there are many ground-nesting birds, maximising the negative impact on the environment."