Behind the News: Michael Barry, fire-watch volunteer
As Bord na Móna warns of forest fires, staff are helping to keep watch on the bogs
Spontaneous destruction: a gorse fire blazes in 2006. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
The major bog fires of 2012, which destroyed peat worth between €3 million and €4 million, prompted Bord na Móna to ask all its employees to volunteer for out-of-hours fire-prevention duty.
Michael Barry, Bord na Móna’s chief financial officer, volunteers to do fire-prevention work on six midlands bogs.
“We are all trained to look out for signs of fires: smoke or haze. In groups of three or four, we drive down small boreens and walk to vantage points to view the bogs through binoculars,” says Barry.
“People drive down from Dublin to patrol certain areas of the bog. It’s in the DNA of the company to protect the bogs, not just for peat production but also to protect the environment.”
If the volunteers spot a fire, they alert Bord na Móna’s firefighting staff. “All our peat-production operators are trained in firefighting, and about 150 people are fully trained to put out major fires.”
Damp peat is the first line of defence in fire prevention on the bogs. Lighting fires out of doors and disposing of cigarette butts without fully extinguishing them are the biggest risks.
“I haven’t had to alert our firefighters to a fire, but I had to warn someone about the dangers of smoking cigarettes on the bog last year. Many people are out walking on the bogs, and there are private turfcutters.”
Peat can also spontaneously combust and burn for days – especially if it is left on tractors with engines hot from working on the bogs. “There are up to 1,000 tractors parked on bogs, and a lot of mobile equipment. Dusty conditions can give rise to fires, and the tractors must be washed down after use,” says Barry.
The volunteers are organised through a text-alert system identifying areas that are at risk because of hot weather. “We each have certain areas allocated to us, and we can be called out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening. About 100 people are on call across the company,” says Barry. “In dry conditions a fire can become an inferno in a very short time – causing damage to the peatlands and huge environmental damage. This type of fire spreads rapidly and can pose a threat to people’s lives, homes and property.”