A massive surge in forest fires sparked by rogue landowners and fly-tippers is costing taxpayers millions of euro, authorities warned today.
State-owned woodland company Coillte said it had to pay out €3.5m last year to clean up the aftermath of 254 blazes on its lands.
The size of the collective area affected by the scorch damage was larger than Dublin’s Phoenix Park in what was the worst year for forest fires in decades.
Most outbreaks are spread by nearby farmers who burn their land to clear it of scrub and unwanted vegetation, despite strict legislation regulating the tradition.
But the economic crisis is also being blamed.
Householders and businesses are increasingly flouting the law to dump waste in forests, often setting it alight, to escape refuse charges, said Coillte.
It is believed up to five people have died in recent years as a result of illnesses caused by exposure to woodland fires.
John O’Sullivan, of Coillte, said 784 hectares of its forestry was set ablaze last year during the worst damage to the state-owned lands in recent memory.
“That was three times the annual average in the previous 18 years,” he said.
“It was a phenomenal challenge for an organisation like Coillte to deal with and something we have never, ever encountered before.”
Mayo, Galway, Donegal and Leitrim were the worst hit counties.
Mr O’Sullivan said this was purely down to the landscape along the western part of the country where there is more gorse and bogland.
But he said there was a cultural problem in Ireland with people illegally dumping waste in forestry – which itself costs €500,000 to clean up - compared to countries like Finland and Sweden where the issue is virtually non-existent.
“It’s a cultural and attitude problem in this country,” said Mr O’Sullivan.
“It has increased in recent times and the I think the reason is that people haven’t got the finances to deal with the effective disposal (of waste).”
He added: “We are taking it quite seriously.”
Garda Superintendent Fergus Healy also appealed to landowners to contact gardai before burning scrubland – as required by law – between March and August.