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Friday 9 December 2016

Forestry: Burning issues - how to tackle the threat of wildfires

A co-ordinated approach among landowners is essential to tackle the risk of wildfires this season

Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30

Fire officers tackle a gorse fire near Belclare, Co Galway in April 2015. Photo: Ray Ryan
Fire officers tackle a gorse fire near Belclare, Co Galway in April 2015. Photo: Ray Ryan

Uncontrolled wildfires have had devastating consequences in recent years.

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People living in the north west still have vivid memories from 2011, when fire fronts of four kilometres wide, spread across large areas.

Some fires were substantial to the extent that their locations and hot spots were picked up by MODIS satellite imagery equipment operated by the European Forest Fire Information System.

While the incidents of wildfires are lower so far this year, there is no room for complacency.

Only in the last few days, the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) has increased their risk assessment to Condition Orange: high fire risk - be prepared. This is the second highest risk level.

Hill vegetation, when combined with drying winds under favourable conditions, has the potential to become the fuel source for highly destructive wildfires similar to those in previous years.

While controlled burning has long been used as a land management tool, such activity requires expert skill and experience.

A co-ordinated approach among local landowners is essential, working to a pre-arranged plan with sufficient resources during legally permitted times of the year.

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Speaking of legally permitted times, we are now well into the prohibited period for the burning of growing vegetation.

It is an offence under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, 1976 (amended by Section 46 of the Wildlife Act, 2000) to burn, from March 1 to August 31, any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated.

Be vigilant

We can all help protect our countryside, forest resource and property. Awareness of the real threat from fire, forward planning, co-operation and effective prevention mechanisms are critical elements to achieve this.

Both Met Éireann and the Forest Service (DAFM) provide guidance in relation to the risk from fire.

Met Éireann provide daily Fire Weather Indices from February to October while the Forest Service issues Forest Fire Danger Ratings during the main wildfire risk season from February through to September.

Both these warning systems work hand in hand and provide forest owners and managers with advance warning of high fire risk weather conditions, and permit appropriate readiness measures to be taken in advance of fire outbreaks.

These weather warning systems are colour coded. Increasing levels of preparation and vigilance are required as the risk levels scale from Green through to Red:

Condition Green - Low Fire Risk Conditions

Condition Yellow - Moderate Hazard Alert. Be Aware.

Condition Orange - High Fire Risk. Be Prepared. This is the current risk level!

Condition Red - Extreme Fire Risk. Take Immediate Action.

Both Met Éireann's Fire Weather Index and the Forest Fire Danger Ratings issued by the Forest Service can be consulted on the home page of Teagasc's forestry website: www.teagasc.ie/forestry.

This index provides information on the fire risk in different areas throughout Ireland taking into account current and past weather conditions.

It also provides a forecast index for five days ahead. This Fire Weather Index is updated daily. Teagasc Forestry tweets (@teagascforestry) also provide regular updates during periods of high fire risk.

Steven Meyen is a Teagasc forestry advisor email: steven.meyen@teagasc.ie

Six steps to reducing the threat of wildfires

The value and multiple benefits of forestry are now widely recognised. Huge resources have been invested, both in terms of land committed by private owners and financial incentives by the State.

At this time of year, forest owners should have appropriate measures in place to minimise the threat to their forests from wildfires during the current high risk season.

The following simple, cost effective steps can go a long way towards reducing the risk of damage to your valuable forest resource:

FIRE PLAN

Ensure you have a current and accurate fire plan for each forest. Such a fire plan should include a map showing access and assembly points for fire fighting personnel and equipment and potential sources of water.

Also include contact details for the emergency services, relevant forest management companies, forest owner groups, neighbouring landowners and forest owners in order to summon help should the need arise. Have fire-fighting tools such as beaters, buckets, knapsack sprayers and pumps to hand and ready to use.

WORK WITH NEIGHBOURS

Co-operation is vital to achieve successful fire prevention. Explain your concerns regarding fire risk to your neighbours. The shared threat from fire can present an ideal opportunity for forest owners to work together. This is already happening in relation to forest management and harvesting operations. Owners of adjoining and neighbouring forests can and should develop joint fire plans and share responsibility for guarding against fire.

BE VIGILANT

You should be particularly vigilant following dry spells which will occur. A period of 24-48 hours is sufficient to dry out dead moorland vegetation following rain, where windy conditions exist.

Where dry conditions persist, experience suggests that you should be particularly vigilant at weekends, and at evening times, when land burning is most likely to take place. If fire is detected, do not delay, summon help immediately and activate your fire plan (see above). Do not rely on others to call the Fire Service.

CHECK FIRE BREAKS AND ACCESS ROUTES

Where fire breaks are required, ensure that they are inspected regularly prior to the fire season and kept vegetation free.

Fire breaks should be at least six metres wide. Also ensure access routes to your forest are maintained in good order. If there is a locked forest gate in place, make sure the padlock is well oiled while the key can be easily found and is clearly marked!

INSURE YOUR TIMBER CROP

The Forest Service (DAFM) requires beneficiaries of planting grants and premiums to maintain and protect their forests. This includes an obligation to replant where a forest is damaged by fire. I would strongly recommend having adequate insurance cover in place.

Appropriate cover for re-establishment costs, timber values and fire brigade call out charges should be considered within any insurance policy. Further detailed information on forest insurance is available from www.teagasc.ie/forestry.

REPORT LOSSES

If your forest is destroyed or damaged by fire, you should report this to the nearest Garda Station and to the Forest Service. Your local forestry inspector can advise on reinstatement measures.

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