Burning issue facing Irish forests

Ray Ryan reports on efforts to plan ahead for the risk of forest fires, which have caused huge damage to Irish woodlands in recent years.

It is that time of the year again, when forests and woodland are most vulnerable to fires because ground vegetation is dead following winter.

Prolonged dry periods and seasonal high winds help create ideal conditions for wildfire to spread quickly through highly-flammable moorland undergrowth. Woodland located in the path of such fires can easily be destroyed.

Young trees are particularly at risk because of their small size and their proximity to flammable vegetation. A carelessly discarded cigarette or match, illegal land burning connected with agriculture, or even a spark from a picnic fire can cause devastation.

Each year, firemen, forestry workers, civilians, gardaí, and sometimes soldiers are deployed for long periods in bringing outbreaks under control.

They generally use shovels, beaters, and even tree branches in preventing flames from spreading across fire breaks in the forests, where roads and undergrowth are also hosed with water.

Helicopters have been used in more modern times to monitor the extent of serious fires from the air and to water-bomb particularly devastating outbreaks, which can put homes, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure at risk.

This is done through the use of a ‘bambi-bucket’ filled with 80-100 gallons of water slung from the helicopter and then dumped on the spreading fire line below. All of these factors add up to the need for great caution by forest owners, turf cutters, recreational visitors to plantations, and land owners, as well as by the general public.

Most wildfires occur as a result of illegal land burning connected with agriculture. Where damage to woodland and other property occurs, those responsible may be liable under the law for very heavy penalties, including imprisonment upon conviction.

The diversion of emergency services to these outbreaks can also have grave consequences in the event of these being required for more life threatening incidents elsewhere.

Many people will be visiting forests over the coming weeks and months for relaxation, recreation and a sense of tranquility. Coillte alone has more than 2,000km of waymarked trails, 180 recreation sites and 12 forest parks, attracting 18m visits annually.

A total of 731,650 hectares or 10.5% of the total land area of Ireland is under forestry, which employs more than 12,000 people and is worth €2.3bn per annum to the economy. It is clearly an asset worth protecting from destructive fires.

A number of major wildfires have occurred in recent years which destroyed or damaged property, including farmland and forests. Landowners are always urged by government departments and other agencies at this time of the year to co-operate in fire prevention efforts.

It is particularly important to report unattended or dangerous fires to the emergency services without delay, before they can become larger incidents that are more difficult to deal with. After a spell of dry weather, a wildfire risk can quickly develop in all areas where flammable vegetation such as grasses, gorse, and heather are present, especially in proximity to forests and other assets.

Land found to have been burned during the specified closed season would be considered automatically ineligible under various support schemes.

Any signs of suspicious activity should be reported to the gardaí, while any uncontrolled or unattended fires should be reported immediately to the Fire and Emergency Services.

Kerry TD Brendan Griffin asked Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dáil earlier this month what the position was regarding extending the spring gorse burning season.

He also sought her views on the prospect of spring wildfires, such as those that have threatened homes and native oak forests in Killarney National Park and many other areas in recent years, and to outline her plans for 2017 to reduce this risk.

Ms Humphreys explained that Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts 1976, as amended, has prohibited the cutting, grubbing, the burning or destruction of vegetation, with certain strict exemptions, from March 1 to August 31.

Following a review of the section, which involved consideration of submissions from interested parties, she announced proposals in December 2016 to introduce legislation to allow for managed hedge cutting and burning at certain times within the existing closed period on a pilot two-year basis.

The legislation required to allow for these pilot measures is included in the Heritage Bill 2016, which was published in January 2016. The Bill is currently at Committee Stage in Seanad Éireann. In the meantime, the existing provisions relating to Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts remain in force.

Ms Humphreys said huge environmental damage is caused by wildfires. This issue has become more acute in recent years, as seen by the spate of fires in various parts of the country.

“The main source of such wildfires is thought to be the deliberate starting of fi res without concern for the consequences,” said Ms Humphreys. “My department is one of a number of agencies represented on the Inter-Agency Gorse Fire Group that explores issues surrounding such fires.

“An Garda Síochána is also represented on the Group. My Department co-operates fully with Garda investigations and any other investigations that may be initiated by other statutory bodies.”

Ms Humphreys said it can be difficult to provide a visible presence on the ground to discourage and prevent unauthorised burning in the countryside.

Attempting to identify the culprits — those who deliberately set fires in open areas — can also be difficult.

Meanwhile, aside from such malicious activities, one of the main challenges is to encourage members of the public, (including landowners, farmers, and recreational users of publicly accessible land), to act responsibly at all times.

Ms Humphreys urged them to be mindful of their own safety, the safety of others, the need to protect property, both publicly owned and privately owned, as well as to appreciate the value of Ireland’s natural heritage, particularly in national parks, nature reserves and designated sites.


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