Five hundred acres of forest in Co Leitrim have been destroyed in a fire that Coillte believe was the result of arson.
It took five fire crews and a helicopter two days to put out the fire in a forest at Dun Mountain in Aughnasheelin near Ballinamore.
The national forestry agency estimates that the cost of putting out the fire and replanting the crop will be in the region of at least €500,000.
Gardaí are now examining satellite imagery which show that the fire, which started in the centre of the wood and spread to the periphery, was started deliberately at 11.44am on Monday.
Coillte national estates risks manager Mick Power said it may be connected to the dumping of rubbish in the centre of the wood.
“The exact area of combustion corresponds to a find we had in the middle of the plantation which was rubbish that was dumped,” he explained.
He said another possibility is that the arson attack is related to opponents of the large-scale plantation of Sitka spruce in the county.
Many locals say there is too much forestry going on in Leitrim at present, the trees planted are the wrong type and that it brings no economic benefit to locals.
The forest near Ballinamore is old, but the area burned was a crop of Sitka spruce planted seven years ago.
“It is something that we will explore. We will let the gardaí get on with their investigation. I would be surprised if this was the case,” Mr Power said.
He ruled out the possibility that it was related to the illegal burning of vegetation which caused gorse fires in the Wicklow mountains and on the slopes of Mount Leinster in Co Carlow.
It is illegal to burn growing vegetation on uncultivated land between March 1st and August 31st.
Mr Power warned that conditions are “perfect” at present for forest fires after a long-dry spell. It is expected to be warm and sunny over the coming days and no rain is forecast. A stiff easterly breeze could also cause fires to spread faster.
The growth in upland areas has not started yet. Last year’s growth that has died back is “tinder-dry” at present, he warned, and could cause a huge conflagration if ignited.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine has issued a national high fire risk rating this week for all areas where hazardous fuels, such as dead grasses, shrub, heather and gorse, exist.
This is the highest area of alert. Mr Power said forest car parks are shut because of Covid-19 but the forests are open to the public.
He asked people not to light fires in or near forests at present and to behave responsibly if they are in the vicinity of them.