Ever since the 18th century, Icelanders have had a tradition of “burning away the old year” with bonfires, and later fireworks. This year, authorities didn’t permit bonfires due to COVID-19 but a snowless ground paired with dry, heavy winds provided the perfect conditions for brush fires in south and west Iceland over the first few days of the year. New Year’s fireworks and illegal bonfires exacerbated the problem, but in Mosfellsbær, a group of teenage boys helped save homes from burning down.
Brush fires were burning in various locations in the capital area on New Year’s Eve and the days following. Dry grass made kindling for most fires, but garbage containers and roofs also caught fire. All available firefighters responded to calls over fires on New Year’s Eve, and search-and-rescue teams were mobilised to help. On New Year’s Eve, 90 fires were reported to the capital area firefighters.
In Árnessýsla in south Iceland, the fire department fought 54 fires and got additional reports from locals who managed to extinguish some fires on their own. The deputy fire chief in Árnessýsla Lárus Kristinn Guðmundsson told RÚV that the fires left large areas burnt after New Year’s Eve. Even though authorities permitted no bonfires this New Year’s Eve, sparks from fireworks and illegal bonfires lit most of the flames. A snow-free ground and heavy dry winds provided perfect conditions for the fire to spread.
A residential building in Mosfellsbær was close to catching fire on New Year’s Day when a brush fire broke out in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. Kids in the area noticed the fire and notified people closest to it. Using every tactic, they managed to extinguish the fire, but it was only two metres from a house when their efforts were finally successful.
Once the fire department arrived, the fire was mostly out. According to a resident in the house threatened by fire, some teenage boys were instrumental in extinguishing the fire. “They sort of rescued us. There were so many of them, and they were so quick, running around with shovels, blankets, and buckets. I think that was the most important part, how quick they were to run around with water and everything.”
In addition to the fires, seven people sought help at the National Hospital’s emergency room with fireworks-related injuries on their hands. Senior physician at the Emergency Room Hjalti Már Björnsson, noted that all seven cases included grown men, not children or teenagers. He told RÚV that there hadn’t been a notable increase in emergency room arrivals due to intoxication or assaults. “There were some but not noticeably more than usual.”