What The Irish Wildlife Trust calls ‘the annual scourge of wildfires on the hills’ has always posed dangers, but creates a new kind of threat in recent times, writes.
A new vision for the hills of Ireland is being sought following a recent spate of gorse fires that damaged habitats and
diverted vital emergency services from focusing on the Covid-19 crisis.
Several hundred hectares of forest and woodland are destroyed by fire every year. The period of highest risk occurs between February and June, when ground vegetation is dead and dry following winter.
It is also the prime season for nesting birds, breeding mammals, and regeneration of growth and habitats. Fires at this time of year can have a devastating impact on wildlife.
The cost of fighting these outbreaks and the loss of standing timber is also significant. Each year, emergency services are deployed for long periods bringing outbreaks under control, sometimes with back-up from helicopters and even drones.
Burning vegetation on uncultivated land between March 1 and August 31 is banned.
People who breach those laws are liable to prosecution and could face fines, imprisonment, and endanger farm payments.
Kerry firefighters recently spent more than seven hours tackling a fire which spread across 150 acres of Killarney National Park.
Outbreaks were also reported from West Cork to the Dublin Mountains, with the annual scourge of wildfires hitting the hills of Kerry, Clare, Louth, Leitrim, and other locations.
While some fires may be accidental, many have been shown to result from the illegal burning of scrub, malicious intent, and carelessness.
Teagasc says forest owners and neighbouring landowners should be particularly vigilant during evenings and weekends when land burning is most likely to take place.
It recommends that fire breaks be inspected regularly and vegetation kept free. Fire plans are deemed essential management tools and co-operating with neighbours is regarded as vital for successful fire prevention.
“All members of rural communities can assist and share responsibility for the protection of our countryside, forest resource, and property,” says Teagasc.
“Awareness of the real threat from fire, forward planning, co-operation, and effective prevention mechanisms are critical elements to achieve this.”
Colour-coded Forest Fire Danger Notices are issued during the main wildfire risk season from February through to September.
A further orange warning issued last Thursday remains in force until midday tomorrow. Three notices — two orange (high risk) and one yellow (moderate) — were issued in March.
These provide forest owners and managers with advance warning of high-risk weather conditions and permit appropriate readiness measures to be taken in advance of fire outbreaks.
Local authorities whose fire services, along with forestry workers, are on the frontline of tackling the outbreaks, have appealed to the public to refrain from any activities such as lighting fires outdoors and dumping hot ashes.
Donegal County Council said its ability to maintain the fire services’ capability to respond promptly to incidents where life or property is at risk is dependent on having its brigades immediately available for call-out.
It said this capability is greatly reduced, and consequently life and property is placed at greater risk, when brigades are responding to large-scale wildfires similar to those that occurred last year.
Mayor of County Cork Ian Doyle said lives of property owners, people on the land, and frontline emergency personnel — who are already under pressure — are being endangered by illegal fires.
“Everyone in our community needs to be mindful of how their actions can affect the lives of others,” he said, stressing the need to allow emergency services to respond to the situation at hand.
Coillte national estates risks manager Michael Power said there is a high risk of forest fires now, particularly in upland areas. “This is expected to continue as we experience ongoing dry weather over the spring and summer months,” he said.
Mr Power said forest fires pose a serious health and safety risk to the public and to people working in the sector. They are very difficult to control, and they put firefighters and forest personnel at great risk.
It is particularly important that emergency services are not put at additional risk during what is an incredibly difficult period for all frontline services across the country.
Mr Power urged the public to avoid all outdoor use of fires and other ignition sources such as cigarettes on forest lands.
The Irish Wildlife Trust has called for more Government action to stop what it termed “the annual scourge of wildfires on the hills”.
Campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty said stricter penalties have been introduced for those with burnt land in recent years, but more needs to be done.
He said a new vision for the beleaguered hills is required where State bodies and private landowners are encouraged to re-wild landscapes or introduce farming practices that are sensitive to nature conservation.
“Such an approach, we believe, would result in enormous positive benefits for climate targets, nature, and people living in these areas,” he said
Agriculture, Food, and Marine Minister Michael Creed warned landowners not to carry out illegal burning of land.
Most on-farm visits are currently suspended due to the Covid-19 crisis, but his department is continuing to carefully monitor satellite imagery to identify any parcels of land that are burnt illegally. Follow-up ground inspections will take place where necessary.
Creed said: “It would be an act of gross disregard for your community if you set illegal fires that could stretch the resources of our emergency services when they are already prioritising care for the vulnerable in our society at this particular time.”
Stressing that this is an unprecedented time in Ireland, he said everyone must play their part in supporting the emergency services and ensuring they are not needlessly diverted.
Culture, Heritage, and Gaeltacht Minister Josepha Madigan urged everyone to be conscious of the danger posed by fires, particularly those on open ground, which can very quickly spread out of control.
“We have all seen how homes and lives can be threatened and we can also see the damage to the landscape and to valuable habitats caused by illegal and uncontrolled fires,” she said.