Garda warning on illegal fires as gorse blaze bill hits €40,000

Aileen Hahesy

Aileen Hahesy

South Tipperary Fire Service spent 40,000 over a two week period this spring battling out of control gorse fires while Coillte lost nearly 30 acres of forestry in its South Tipperary and Waterford plantations last year due to these blazes.

The huge loss to property, danger to lives and cost to the emergency services in dealing with unsupervised and illegal fires on mountainsides and scrubland that are lit to clear unwanted vegetation are being highlighted in a Garda Siochana led public awareness campaign to reduce the number of these fires in South Tipperary and throughout the country.

According to the Parks and Wildlife Service, the burning of vegetation on uncultivated land is illegal during the bird breeding season between March and the end of August.

Gardai are clamping down on those responsible for unauthorised fires and warn that people responsible for lighting them will be pursued and prosecuted. And anyone undertaking the burning of vegetation between September and March within one mile of a wooded area must inform their local Garda Station in writing and failure to do so will lead to prosecution.

As part of the clampdown on illegal fires, Cahir based Gda. Insp. Paul O’Driscoll has been appointed to the role of liaising with Coillte, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and private forestry groups in South Tipperary to prevent and detect these blazes.

He pointed out that some of these fires are started in the vicinity of private homes and situations have arisen where properties have had to be evacuated because of concerns they will be damaged by fire or smoke.

In one recent case, the gardai had to evacuate a busy service station on Clonmel’s outskirts because of fears that a fire on land across the road would spread to the petrol station with terrible consequences.

Gda. Insp. Kevin Bowen, who is investigating the incident, said gardai were forced to close a busy 200m section of the Wood Road and evacuate the Apple Green Service Station for several hours on the afternoon of April 14 while fire fighters put the unauthorised fire under control.

Insp. O’Driscoll advised anyone intending to clear land of unwanted vegetation outside the bird breeding season to notify the local gardai and fire service first and undertake the burning in a controlled manner.

He also urged members of the public, who see fires on land and forestry areas to contact the emergency services.

“We’re asking people to think of their neighbours and their neighbours’ property when they need to burn material. Safety should always come first. Informing Gardaí of your intention to burn is your obligation under the law and it’s your responsibility as a neighbour.

“Think and act responsibly at all times when considering controlled burning, particularly if it’s near a wooded area.”

South Tipperary Fire Chief Tadhg O’Driscoll highlighted the huge cost incurred by the fire service in dealing with out of control heather and gorse fires. Call outs to such fires around the county over a two week period of good dry weather in March cost the service €40,000.

“That would have been about a dozen fires that required fairly significant resources and in a few situations they were in inaccessible areas up in the Galtee Mountains and Slievenamon.”

Mr O’Driscoll said the Fire Service had to respond to every 999 call it received but didn’t want the mobilisation of its personnel and fire fighting equipment to such incidents when they may be needed more elsewhere.

Coillte District Manager Liam Cleary reported that last year Coillte lost 11.6 hectacres of forestry in its South Tipperary and Waterford plantations due to scrubland fires spreading to their properties.

He said the number of scrubland fires set alight on mountainside scrubland is higher in years where the weather is good in spring. During two weeks of good weather in March, there were scrubland fires on Slievenamon, the Galtees and Comeraghs that caused headaches for the forestry agency.

“This year has been quiet enough because they were not in a position to burn but the previous years the hard winter was followed by reasonably good springs there were a lot of fires. We had 22 fires in our plantations in Waterford and South Tipperary in 2010 and 2011.”

Apart from the threat to woodland, Mr Cleary said uncontrolled scrubland fires pose a major danger to Coillte workers and emergency service personnel sent out to deal with these conflagrations at all hours of the day in remote areas that are difficult to access.

“That is the real danger; sending fellows up in the middle of the night to these places, which are generally only accessed over rough terrain.”

National Parks and Wildlife Service District Officer Cyril Saich said the legislation prohibiting the burning of vegetation on uncultivated land between March and the end of August is advertised widely in the press every year but still these fires are lit during this period including in Special Areas of Conservation in mountainous areas.

Mr Saich said they took complaints about these fires seriously and investigate any complaints they receive.

“But it’s difficult to police because the fires happen in very isolated areas,” he pointed out.” It’s very difficult to have people on site especially when resources are tight. And there are various methods of setting a fire, where you can walk away and it will ignite an hour or two later.”