Coillte denies staff cuts hampering forest fire prevention

Satellites being used to monitor illegal fires set by landowners, Minister of State says

Smouldering gorse on the Seanafeistin Road close to Cloosh Valley in Connemara following recent gorse fires. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Smouldering gorse on the Seanafeistin Road close to Cloosh Valley in Connemara following recent gorse fires. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

Coillte has denied staffing cuts are hampering fire prevention efforts during prolonged dry weather.

The State forestry body has also played down suggestions that “anti-forestry” elements have contributed to the large number of gorse fires which killed wildlife and damaged thousands of hectares of woodland and bog across Ireland earlier this month.

Minister of State for Forestry Andrew Doyle has said satellite imagery is being examined by his department to identify unauthorised burning during the specified “closed” season for clearing vegetation on land.

Mr Doyle has warned farmers they will be stripped of the 2017 Basic Payment Scheme and other “area-based” schemes if their eligible agricultural and forestry land is identified as having been burnt illegally.

Coillte is currently “gathering information” from some 40 wildfires during the extended period of dry weather which it says it will forward to An Garda Síochána.

However, it has denied local claims that staffing cuts have led to fire-breaks between woodland and gorse not being adequately maintained. The State body was unable to provide figures for staffing level changes over the past 10 years.

Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) Connemara chairman Joe Kane distanced himself from comments attributed to an association colleague earlier this week, referring to “anti-forestry” activists lighting wildfires.

Unfair blame

Mr Kane said farmers were being “blamed unfairly”, and no landowner would deliberately light a fire during prolonged dry weather.

“People who have nothing else to do see dry vegetation close to the road. I am talking about people who have the roads black with tyre rubber and joyriding at night,” he said.

Coillte communications director Ciarán Fallon said he had “never heard” of “anti-forestry elements” being a factor, and that staffing was not an issue in managing the 6,000 forests.

“We had 30-40 people in the Cloosh valley in Co Galway, moving water, beating down embers and supervising helicopter water deliveries by the Air Corps and a contractor,”he said. “We had another 100 staff ready to assist.”

However, safety was paramount, as flames were up to 20m (65ft) high at times, with fire fronts extending up to 600m (2,000ft) in length, he said.

More than 500 staff and contractors are trained and equipped to combat forest fires, Coillte said, adding that it has “comprehensive fire and emergency plans”.

Destroyed

Coillte believes it was the worst blaze in the Cloosh Valley forest since 1977, destroying 1,500 hectares of forestry and 2,000 hectares of bogland, impacting on wildlife and posing a risk to the Galway Wind Park which is a joint Coillte/SSE Airtricity project.

The commercial semi-State has initiated an “incident review” and a detailed assessment of the extent and cost of the damage is under way, with early estimates reaching €10,000 a hectare.

It believes “deliberately set gorse fires set elsewhere in the valley subsequently spread onto Coillte owned forestry” during the exceptionally dry spell.

Under the Wildlife Act, it is illegal to set fires to growing vegetation between March 1st and August 31st.

The Green Party has criticised the Government for seeking to extend the controlled burning season.

Earlier this week, Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan cited figures from the Department of Heritage showing there were just nine successful prosecutions for starting illegal fires under the Wildlife Act between 2006 and 2016, at fines of €600 each.

Figures obtained by Birdwatch Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act showed that 10 local authorities had spent €6 million on tackling almost 6,000 forest, gorse or bogland fires between 2010 and 2015.