Firefighters and conservationists are concerned that a summer of “staycations” and increased outdoor activity could lead to more wildfires, particularly in the event of fine weather conditions.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), which manages thousands of acres across the country, said its forthcoming Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) will be in a position to crack down on fires once established later this summer.
Recruitment of an extra 50 conservation rangers was announced on Monday in response to the latest fires in Cos Kerry and Mayo over the past week.
“We’re doubling our intake of NPWS conservation rangers and accelerating the recruitment process,” Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan said.
In addition, the NPWS would be working with An Garda Síochána to investigate the cause of the fires and fully assess the damage, he said.
The three-day fire which raged through the Killarney National Park since Friday night was brought under control on Monday with five helicopters at the scene.
A spokesman for the NPWS said: “With the Covid19 pandemic we have seen unprecedented numbers of people using the outdoors for physical and mental health and wellbeing.
“With the increase has come the increase in environmental and social impacts. An awareness campaign to be rolled out is targeting many groups, including new visitors to the outdoors.”
Darren O'Connor, a Dublin Fire Brigade station officer with extensive training in wildfire suppression said many forest fires are started deliberately, while origins or "ignition points" traced to paths and other areas of human activity.
“We have seen it over the years where we have had extended periods of dry weather, we have been extremely busy,” he said, noting that this year is likely to see an increase in outdoor pursuits.
“It’s a concern for the fire services because we need to maintain services for everything else” such as road traffic accidents, domestic fires and rescues.
Wildfires are caused when gorse and other natural “fine fuels” are drying out. Anything on south facing elevations, exposed to direct sunlight and then to dry easterly winds will quickly become flammable.
Mr O'Connor trained in trouble spots including Catalonia in Spain and heavily vegetated areas of the UK. He says controlled fuel management is more organised there, burned deliberately to avoid catastrophic blazes from taking hold in dry months. The vegetation is ignited to create fire breaks and to widen existing ones - natural barriers to the spread of flames.
Natural fires burn faster on hills, their speed of spread doubling with every 10 degree increase in the slope. Once flames reach 3.5 metres in height they cannot be tackled from the ground and air support is required.
Mr O’Connor notes that even with the latest fires, activity has not been as intense as they might have expected, much of the public heeding appeals. The Dublin Fire Brigade’s Twitter account has more than 76,000 followers and regularly draws attention to the issue.
Drones are increasingly used to assess the conditions of the fire, particularly its speed and footprint; to spot windows of opportunity in fighting it; and to identify containment lines in the area like walls and streams. The NPWS also regularly deploys drones to monitor land under its control.
When large scale fires occur, much attention is focused on the farming communities and concerns about the starting of fires outside of the legal September to February season.
Last year, the conservationist Vincent Hyland called for legislative change on the management of upland areas in his documentary "A Burning Issue".
“The biggest issue out here is policy and the management of uplands because the farming community are allowed to burn scrub and gorse from September to February,” he said, adding that many do it out of season. “There are a cohort of individuals who ignore the law.”
As well as a threat to lives and property, large wildfires can have devastating effects on habitats.
"The damage that is done to birds and other biodiversity is immense," said Niall Hatch, head of communications and education at BirdWatch Ireland. "We need to see more action in investigating the causes of these fires and in places where crimes are committed there needs to be prosecutions."