The Government has been accused by the Green Party of negligence and a lack of foresight over the recent spate of gorse fires around the country.
It is estimated the fires will cost taxpayers tens of millions of euro in damage as well as ancillary costs such as environmental, health and tourism impacts.
Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan said the Government did not seem to appreciate the full impact of what was happening with the gorse fires and seemed intent on pushing ahead with extending the burning season to the end of March, despite the damage being caused by such fires.
Ms O'Sullivan pointed out that Birdwatch Ireland had obtained figures under the Freedom of Information Act from 10 local authorities that showed they had spent €6 million on tackling almost 6,000 forest, gorse or bog fires between 2010 and 2015.
She gave the further example of Cork County Council, where fire chief Seamus Coughlan told Cllr Christopher O'Sullivan of Fianna Fáil that between 2012 and the end of April this year the council had spent more than €1 million fighting more than 1,260 gorse, grass, forest and bog fires.
She noted the costs related primarily to payroll for fire service personnel, who had managed to curtail fires such as the one that raged in Gougane Barra in west Cork in April, or more recently at a Coillte forest in Cloosh valley, Co Galway.
“If local authorities have spent almost €6 million fighting almost 6,000 fires between 2010 and 2015, imagine what the recent outbreaks of forest fires must have cost in terms of trying to control [them] because there have been some very serious outbreaks,” said Ms O’Sullivan.
She mentioned the fire in Cloosh – where the Defence Forces, including the Air Corps, assisted the fire services – as an example, while Coillte staff and workers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service had also been involved in combating several of the fires, as have local people.
Damage to trees
Aside from payroll, there were other costs, such as damage to valuable trees, in the case of the Cloosh fire, where Coillte estimated it had lost trees worth millions of euro. It warned it could take up to 25 years to replenish the 1,500 hectares of destroyed trees.
There were more long-term environmental costs, such as the impact of the loss of such forestry upon Ireland’s efforts to meet its greenhouse gas targets, Ms O’Sullivan added.
There were also environmental effects due to air pollution from such fires, and she was aware from media reports that in the case of the Cloosh fire, schools had to close their windows lest children inhaled fumes.
"We also had the case of homes being damaged, as happened with a fire in Mayo, and there are also implications for tourism; you now have images of Ireland going out from Nasa all over social media showing areas at fire risk – and the charred landscape looks awful from a tourist perspective."
Ms O’Sullivan said figures from the Department of Heritage showed that between 2006 and 2016, when there were thousands of gorse and forest fires, there were just nine successful prosecutions for starting illegal fires under the Wildlife Act, with the culprits fined €600 each.
“There is a lack of foresight by the Government. There’s strong evidence climate change is impacting on weather patterns, leading to more dry periods. We need legislation robust enough to protect us from the events of the last few weeks, not an extension to the burning season.”