FIRE services in Derwentside are being stretched to breaking point, with officers forced to deal with hundreds of arson attacks.

The past few weeks of mild weather and sunshine have dried out the grasslands of North Durham, making them easy pickings for youngsters bent on starting fires.

Fire officers stationed at Consett and at High Handenhold, near Stanley, have had to deal with no less than 164 grass fires and similar nuisance incidents in the past three weeks.

High Handenhold station commander Peter Hewitson said: "This really is a major problem for us. Dealing with grass fires is tying up fire appliances that could be better deployed elsewhere.

"These kids are delaying us and more especially keeping us from dealing with more immediate emergencies."

Since Sunday, March 16, fire crews have dealt with at least 95 nuisance fires in the Stanley Woods area, particularly around Whinside, Heather Way and Oxhill.

Mr Hewitson said most of the fires had been started before or after school hours and at weekends and therefore had led the brigade and police to suspect that it was mainly children to blame.

Grass fires can take up to two hours to put out, which could potentially cost lives if fire-fighters are delayed from responding to other emergencies.

Keith Wanley, station commander at Consett, said his men had dealt with 115 nuisance fires since March 16, mostly in the villages of Annfield Plain, Delves Lane, plus Moorside and The Grove area in Consett.

Mr Wanley said: "Some of these fires may be accidental, but the vast majority are arson and we suspect that it is children who are mainly responsible."

Both fire stations are working with police and Crimestoppers to combat the increasing problem.

Fire officers at Consett have also launched a poster campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of starting grass fires.

Mr Wanley said: "We need this to stop now.

"Parents must take more care of their children, be aware of where their kids are and educate them about the danger of starting fires.

"We would also urge residents to be vigilant and report any signs of kids acting suspiciously.

"If we get any information on specific individuals starting fires, we will prosecute."

Anyone who witnesses a fire being deliberately started or has any other information about the culprits can phone Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or contact their local police station.