Arts and Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys said her officials had indicated more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) had been affected, causing serious damage to habitats and wildlife and thousands of euro in material damage to park infrastructure, over the weekend of April 11.
However, Kerry County Council estimates around 4,500 acres have been burned in the 26,000-acre park, with large swathes of scenic landscape now bare and blackened as the tourist season gets under way.
There has also been damage to some of the country’s finest remaining native oakwoods, in Killarney.
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And, despite appeals by the fire service and wildlife agencies, gorse fires are continuing in mountainous areas of Kerry, with Caherciveen fire brigade being called to a fire in the Ballinskelligs area yesterday.
Ms Humphreys said the upland areas of the national park were the most seriously affected, with heather, gorse and grass burnt across a large area of the south eastern side.
“These habitats are very important for flora and fauna in general, including ground-nesting birds, small mammals and insects. It is difficult to quantify the level of ecological damage caused by the fire and it will take a long time for all of these habitats to recover.”
On a positive note, she said the woodlands generally escaped serious damage.
Also, damage to park fencing was not as bad as originally thought and very little permanent damage was caused to the boardwalks along the Kerry Way.
Ms Humphreys urged anyone with any information on the cause of the fires, no matter how unimportant or trivial it may seem, to contact investigating gardaí.
“The threat posed by illegal burning is extremely serious and it is incumbent on all members of the public to comply with the law and undertake burning in a controlled manner.”
Senator Paul Coghlan (FG) said many of the park’s deer, both the native red species and sika, were “straying all over the place, damaging both land and crops, because of the fires”.
He said: “The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) should give serious consideration to selling off as many as possible of the Japanese-imported sika species.
“But, more urgently, we need to ensure that there are adequate fire breaks in and around the park to stop these fires getting out of control.”
Cllr Johnny Healy-Rae (Ind) said insurance was a major issue and he called on the council to write to the NPWS and the Office of Public Works to clarify the situation in the event of serious personal injury, or damage to property in areas bordering the park.
Killarney-based Cllr Michael Gleeson claimed there was a “level of thuggery” or some form of pyromania in some of the scattered fires. Smoke and particles from the fires were also impacting adversely on people’s health, especially those with lung problems.
The fires have been taking place across Kerry, with some in the Portmagee and Caherdaniel areas, on the Ring of Kerry, earlier this week. Other areas affected included Mangerton and Kilcummin, both outside Killarney; Kells, Glencar, Cordal, Brosna, Castlemaine and the Short Mountain, near Tralee.