It is hard to reconcile how glorious weekend weather could coincide with so much destruction caused by mountain fires. They swept high up on inaccessible mountainsides where little could be done other than deploying helicopters – where their services could be secured – to drop water.
The scale of destruction in Killarney National Park, the Mourne Mountains and near Pontoon, Co Mayo – some of the most scenic parts of Ireland – will take years to address. The upset being felt by many is compounded by growing unease as such fires are becoming more frequent and the wherewithal to contain them is short of what is needed. An active Hen Harrier nest was destroyed in the Kerry fire while the hunting grounds for three other pairs were destroyed. Countless other animals were also lost along with the habitats of many nesting birds. Some of Ireland's oldest oak trees were engulfed in Killarney though heroic efforts by firefighters and volunteers saved many others. Soil and water damage alone will have a prolonged impact.
It remains to be seen who started the latest fires, as they are not a natural phenomenon here. What is known is that decades of neglect, poor enforcement and underfunding have left Ireland’s natural resources wide open to this destruction. They are often deliberately set and, less frequently, they are caused by careless tourists; campfires, barbecues or bits of broken glass. The reality is that burning gorse in uplands has all too often been deployed by reckless sheep farmers in a flawed attempt to maximise EU payments – though finding proof of this is notoriously difficult.
What happened in recent days, especially the damage to half of Killarney National Park, adds up to an ecological disaster. Tougher penalties are required for those who set fires deliberately, backed by greater management presence on the ground. Global warming is resulting in more prolonged dry periods. Hard-to-control mountain fires are a consequence of this. A lot more must be done to reduce the risk of them occurring.