The wall of dense rhododendron on the spine of Torc Mountain in the Killarney National Park acted as a firebreak in the early hours of Saturday morning and prevented a major fire reaching the oak, beech and pine woodlands, it has emerged.
Fire crews from Killarney and Killorglin battled for more than 13 hours before the mountain fire, whose flames could be seen for miles, was finally extinguished.
However, the forest of rhododendron ponticum, an invasive species, and a headache for park management, helped to halt the fire on Torc.
The “rhodo” as it is known locally reaches right up Torc mountain and is so dense walkers have sometimes got lost there. Kerry chief fire officer John Hegarty revealed the rhododendron on the mountain and the wind dying down were key elements in halting the fire which destroyed hundreds of acres.
Mr Hegarty said early evidence was that the Torc fire was not started on grazing land.
Young hares, nesting birds and lizards were burnt alive. Residents woke on Saturday morning to cars sprinkled with ash and a strong smell of smoke.
There were also fires also on grazing land and commonage at nearby Coolies in Muckross.
It takes mountain habitat years, possibly decades, to recover from wildfires, with some of the rarest species very vulnerable, Killarney conservation ranger Peter O’Toole said.
Fire engines from Kenmare were on their way to assist at Torc – when they encountered a major fire at Looscaunagh a short distance on the N71.
There had been 650 call outs to dangerous gorse fires and wildfires in 2010 – and it has cost the council half a million euro.
Mr Hegarty said:
“GPS coordinates from the fires this weekend are being sent to the Department of Agriculture for cross-comparison to see if any of the burnt land is being put forward for grants such as REPS.”
Meanwhile, there are growing calls for a more vigorous approach by the authorities in tackling the major threat posed to property and life by wildfires.
The whole tourist industry centred on the national park is also at risk. Although out of season wildfires are an annual challenge now and most of them are believed to have been deliberately set, there has not been a single prosecution for the criminal vandalism in Killarney, solicitor Pat F O’Connor said.
European legislation governs the protection of what is the country’s biggest national park and its rare species. Europe could intervene and impose sanctions, because of the inaction by the authorities on stamping out the practice of wildfires, said Mr O’Connor, a former chairman of the national park liaison committee.
Councillor Niall Kelleher (FF), chair of the county Kerry Joint Policing Committee, joined Killarney the solicitor in asking for a full garda investigation and a vigorous approach into the Torc fire and other incidents this weekend. The deadline for burning expired on March 1st to protect wildlife. The mild weather since January had given sheep farmers plenty of opportunity to burn scrubland before the cut-off, Cllr Kelleher said.