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Emergency services / Fair Isle blaze was detected within half an hour, fire chief clarifies

The ruins of the bird observatory in Fair Isle after the fire. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND’s fire chief has clarified a recent media report which suggested it took over five hours before the Fair Isle Bird Observatory fire was spotted.

Matt Mason told a meeting of Shetland’s community safety and resilience board on Wednesday that in fact it took between five and 30 minutes for the alarm to be raised by a member of the public who saw smoke rising from the building.

He also clarified that the cause of the fire has not been ruled as overheating, but that it was likely to be accidental.

However, mainly due to the severity of the fire there is a lack of evidence to allow a firm conclusion to be reached.

The observatory and guest house burned down last year, with no injuries reported.

It proved to be a challenging operation for the service, with the local fire fighters on the remote island assisted by crews from mainland Shetland who were initially brought by coastguard helicopter and lifeboat.

“Fair Isle remains a priority of ours,” Mason said. “We have fully debriefed the incident.”

He said there have been some lessons learned from the blaze.

“We continue to work to make our isolated populations as resilient as can be,” Mason said.

Board chairman councillor Alastair Cooper asked whether challenges over getting kit to Fair Isle had been resolved.

Mason said the fire service has had a “long standing working relationship” with partners like the coastguard, the RNLI and the council.

“We have always had a good working understanding, and we have been well supported in our operations,” he said.

He reiterated, though, that the RNLI does not have a statutory obligation to help the fire service out.

In terms of the coastguard, Mason said their response is “predicated on risk to life”.

He conceded it needs to be explored further as to whether this means risk to members of the public or emergency services staff.

There was no-one in the bird observatory and guesthouse at the time of the fire.

Generally Mason said he believes the fire service is in a “strong position” in terms of support and multi-agency work.

Members of the community safety and resilience board were full of praise for the work of local fire fighters, with local councillors speaking up in tribute of the “brave” crews.

Mason also said that the mental health and wellbeing of fire fighters was of the “highest importance”.

Crew members can access support via a specialist national facility called the Rivers Centre in Edinburgh, but work is underway to try to expand the local offering.

Investigations, meanwhile, are continuing into the cause of the Moorfield Hotel fire in Brae last month.

The ruins of the building are now being taken down.