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‘Significant lead’ on the cause of Fair Isle Observatory blaze

A devastating blaze which razed the popular Fair Isle Bird Observatory would have destroyed the building even if more firefighters from the mainland had been able to attend the island inferno quicker.

That is the view of Shetland’s chief fire officer Matt Mason, who also revealed they were following a “significant lead” on the origin of the blaze.

He told members of the isles’ community safety and resilience board, however, that details could not yet be publicly revealed due to the ongoing insurance process.

Mr Mason claimed that if the observatory fire had taken place on the Shetland mainland then it probably would have had some 12 to 14 fire appliances in attendance.

But he still believed the building would have burned down even if new appliances with the technology to cut through concrete and metal were on scene.

The world-renowned building went on fire in March, believed to be started in the roof area, and was quickly attended to by local volunteers.

Firefighters from the Shetland mainland were transported by coastguard helicopter and lifeboat to support the local crew on the remote island.


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South mainland member Allison Duncan asked about a possible cause after praising the “brave” fire crews, to which the fire chief replied: “We are following a significant lead”.

Mr Mason added that two reviews are now in place, one relating to the fire service’s island mobilisation plan and one on fire coverage in Fair Isle.

Part of the latter review, he said, relates to how there is one fire appliance on the island which is also used for covering planes taking off and landing at the airstrip.

Fair Isle observatory crowdfunder stopped after quickly reaching £26,000

Board chairman Alastair Cooper said the fragility of emergency services responding to incidents on Shetland’s islands deserves attention.

He added: “It’s the first major incident we have had on an offshore island.”

The observatory, based in a two-storey wooden lodge, opened to visitors in 2011.

On the night of the blaze a volunteer fire crew, which was supported later by extra fire crews brought by coastguard helicopter and a lifeboat.

The observatory is a popular tourist spot for bird watching and for scientific research into seabirds and bird migration.

It was established in 1948 with the current building constructed in 2010, offering three-star accommodation to visitors.

The observatory team was headed by warden David Parnaby and his wife Susannah, who was the centre’s administrator. They have lived on the Shetland island with children Grace and Freyja since February 2011.

A funding drive was launched to help them and was quickly wound up after it raised £26,000 in just a few days.

Roy Dennis, honorary president of the observatory, has vowed to rebuild the £4m facility that opened nine years ago.

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