Counting the cost of fires on the boglands

THE first bog fires round here started last Monday.

There was a westerly breeze so they spread eastwards, burning heather, furze and a plantation of lodge-pole pine. Then the wind changed direction and strengthened and the wall of flame rushed back westwards at a quite astonishing speed.

This started at about 10am. By lunchtime another bog five kilometres away was on fire and a couple of hours later a third one was burning. This pattern of events makes it seem unlikely that the fires started either naturally or accidentally. Deliberate arson seems much more probable.

The one nearest to my house, and at one stage it was only about 250 metres away, was by far the worst. The gardaí were on the scene, a helicopter was flying round the gigantic plume of smoke and I was in touch with the fire service. As well as the normal fire-fighting equipment, they were using quad bikes to race around as they tried to create fire-breaks to prevent it spreading.

But the wind got even stronger and the bog headlands were full of big old furze bushes, many of which had been killed or badly damaged by frost and snow last winter. After the long dry spell they burnt explosively and the fire was totally out of control.

The main bog is owned by Bord na Móna who are producing horticultural peat moss from it. The milled peat is gathered up in long ridges and covered with black plastic sheeting to protect it from the weather.

First the sheeting caught fire and then the milled peat beneath. Squalls of wind blew the burning material high in the air and, as darkness fell, the skyline was extraordinary. The eruptions of burning peat dust looked like volcanic explosions.

The gardaí and the fire service evacuated several families that night but, as far as I can gather at this stage, no serious damage was done to anyone’s home. But the environmental damage is enormous.

The dog and I took a nervous walk to the bog headland beside the house. I knew that if the wind got up the fire could return and that it could travel at a speed faster than I could run, so I was very careful.

We encountered an extraordinary landscape. It looked like a set for one of those after the apocalypse films. The fire had travelled through so quickly that it hadn’t burnt up most of the trees and shrubs — it had just stripped them of all foliage and left them as gaunt black skeletons. Little plumes of smoke were coming from them. There was even smoke coming from cracks in the ground—- which actually was on fire because it was dry peat.

Occasionally small groups of people loomed up out of the haze. They were obviously inspecting the damage. One group of about half a dozen men were all armed with hurleys. I should have asked them why. Were they for beating out fires or were they for beating up arsonists? I looked around, trying to take in the scale of the damage. And I wondered how many birds’ nests had been burned. There must have been goldcrests in the pines, siskins in the birches, pheasants in the rushes, stonechats in the furze bushes, wrens in the high heather.

At least the adult birds could escape the galloping flames. But what about the frogs, hedgehogs and beetles? There had been real carnage. Eventually the vegetation will recover and animals and birds will re-colonise it. But not for a while. The bog is still burning. It could be weeks or even months before the fires go out.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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