Gorse fires: Area five times size of Phoenix Park was ablaze

Hope expressed weather will keep aiding battle against gorse fire

The Irish Air Corps attempt to quell flames from a large forest fire in Galway. Video: Irish Air Corps

 

Crews battling a fire at one of the biggest forests in the country are hopeful favourable weather conditions which allowed them get the blaze under control on Wednesday will continue on Thursday. 

But the managing director of Coillte Forests, Gerard Murphy, warned that an increase in winds could spark an escalation of the fire which has already destroyed about 1,500 hectares of forest and 2,000 of bogland in the Cloosh Valley in Connemara.

Footing turf near Seanafeistin as a gorse fire burns in Cloosh Valley, Connemara, on Tuesday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Footing turf near Seanafeistin as a gorse fire burns in Cloosh Valley, Connemara, on Tuesday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The damage to the forest has been estimated at millions of euro, but there is also a huge ecological and environmental cost to be assessed.

A shift in wind direction on Tuesday evening carried the smoke almost 40km east across Galway city and Salthill and as far inland as Loughrea, with smoke pollution levels in the city being recorded at 20 times normal level.

Satellite imagery of the gorse fires. The images are from May 9th. The red marks are called "thermal anomalies" or, as most people would say, fires. Image courtesy of NASA
Satellite imagery of the gorse fires. The images are from a Nasa satellite taken on May 9th show the larges fire in Co Galway and plumes of smoke that stretches into the Atlantic. 
Satellite imagery of the gorse on May 9th in Co Galway. The red marks on the images are what Nasa calls "thermal anomolies" 
Satellite imagery of the gorse fires. The images are from a Nasa satellite taken on May 9th show the larges fire in Co Galway and plumes of smoke that stretches into the Atlantic. 

The Health Service Executive on Wednesday evening issued a statement urging vulnerable people in areas affected by smoke or ash to remain indoors, along with guidelines on how to deal with the impact of air pollution.

The cause of the fire, which began on Saturday and which peaked on Tuesday when one of three fires stretched for more than 8km, is not known.

However, it is believed it may have been started deliberately by a farmer clearing scrub vegetation which spread out of control.

At one stage an area five times the size of the Phoenix Park was on fire, but calmer winds on Wednesday morning and the deployment of members of the Defence Forces on the hillside, “thrashing” the ground, helped bring the blaze under control.

Water dropped

More than 85,000 litres of water was dropped by helicopters on Tuesday and a similar operation on Wednesday helped curb the fire.

“It will be monitored closely over the coming days, a shift in winds could see it escalate and, ideally, it will take heavy rain to put it out.

“We don’t know how the fire started but in most cases these fires are started deliberately. Fire don’t start on their own,” added Mr Murphy.

Roads throughout the vast expanse of Connemara hillside near Oughterard were closed yesterday to allow access to emergency vehicles as well as prevent members of the public going there to see the fire.

The forest is in an isolated area and as a result there was no damage or real threat to houses or farm buildings but Independent councillor Tom Welby from Oughterard warned against becoming complacent.

“We need to find more effective and faster ways of dealing with gorse and forest fires,” he said.

John Lusby of Birdwatch Ireland said the fire had happened at one of the worst possible times of the year.

“This time of year is the peak breeding and nesting season for a whole range of wildlife and it affects the entire ecosystem from the plants to birds to mammals and so on,” he said.

Fire crews from all over Galway, Coillte workers and members of the Defence Forces monitored the area overnight and further efforts will be made to extinguish the worst blaze to hit Connemara since a similar fire in the Cloosh Valley caused extensive damage in 1977.