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Forest fire hazards can be tamed by co-ordinated community approach


Wildfires can cause very severe damage to nearby forests

Wildfires can cause very severe damage to nearby forests

Wildfires can cause very severe damage to nearby forests

Despite our reputation for mild and moist weather, we seem to have an increasing problem with wildfires.

Changes in agricultural practice and demographics in upland areas have resulted in less intensive grazing regimes, greater fuel accumulation and increased frequency and severity of wildfire incidence in some parts of Ireland.

Incidents range from small unattended outdoor fires to more serious extensive wildfires involving thousands of hectares of upland vegetation.

Forest losses associated with these fires are usually between 350 and 500 hectares destroyed annually. 2010 and 2011 were dreadful years with over 1,500 hectares of forest lost in both years and up to 25,000 of open land burned over in each of these years.

When fires destroy forests, they destroy future raw materials, pension funds, timber exports, economic potential and jobs.

They directly threaten the homes and safety of communities and rob those communities of vital emergency service response capabilities.

Wildfires consume more than just forests and bog land. They damage lands, farm infrastructure and grazing capacity.

They can destroy valuable but delicate habitats and its flora and fauna.

Today is the last day of the season when landowners are permitted to burn growing vegetation.

It is an offence to burn any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated from 1 March to 31 August.

Local initiatives

The burning of upland areas pastures is mainly undertaken to improve grazing conditions. Controlled burning will remove dead material, reduce potential fire fuel and recycle nutrients.

On the other hand, poorly planned burning can cause long-term damage to soil and upland hydrology or increase unwanted vegetation cover such as gorse and bracken.

John Casey (Teagasc) and Eugene Curran (Forest Service, DAFM) initiated the Cork Wildfire Co-op Group (CWCG) in early 2012 to address the increasing number of wildfires in the West Cork area.

An emphasis was placed on cooperation between the landowners, farming and community organisations and state agencies; to develop a shared understanding of the issues, to increase opportunities to work together and to provide a template for others.

Controlled burning requires expert skill and experience. The knowledge and skills of burning built up by farmers is often underappreciated and overlooked.

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.

The Cork Wildfire Co-op Group runs an on-going information campaign to farmers. Using a simple notification system, the number of callouts by An Garda Síochána was down 50pc while callouts by the Fire Service were down 75pc.

The CWCG have organised well-attended prescribed burning demos and training in co-operation with the other stakeholders such as the IFA, the Fire Service and the Forest Service.

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The latest joint Teagasc / Forest Service burning demos were held in Kilcrohane, Co Cork and last week a (very wet) burning demo was held near Castlemaine, Co Kerry.

The controlled use of fire as a positive land management tool can bring upland areas back into active management, balancing agricultural objectives with conservation and habitat management objectives.

A high degree of cooperation is required between landowners and other concerned stakeholders for such an initiative to be successful. Local level fire co-operation groups, such as those currently operating in Co Cork, can provide a suitable and positive forum for discussion and improved cooperation and knowledge transfer.

This meitheal approach is not seeking to reinvent the wheel, but to help it run more smoothly. This is a very worthy initiative for other areas to consider.

Steven Meyen is a Teagasc forestry consultant email:

How to minimise the risks to your forest

Forest owners should have appropriate measures in place to minimise the threat to their forests from wildfires during the current high risk season. Reduce the risk of danger to your forest by following these simple, cost effective steps.

CHECK FOREST FIRE DANGER RATINGS The Forest Service (DAFM) issues these Danger Ratings providing advance warning of high fire risk weather conditions. They are colour coded from Green through to Red. Consult the current status here: Teagasc Forestry tweets (@teagascforestry) also provide regular updates during high risk periods.

FIRE PLAN Ensure you have an up-to-date fire plan in place. Include a map showing access, assembly points, water sources as well as essential contact details. Have fire-fighting tools such as beaters, buckets and knapsack sprayers to hand and ready to use.

WORK WITH NEIGHBOURS Co-operation is vital. Explain your concerns to your neighbours. Neighbours should develop joint fire plans sharing responsibilities.

BE VIGILANT Especially following dry spells: a period of 24-48 hours is sufficient to dry out dead moorland vegetation following rain, where windy conditions exist. Be particularly vigilant at weekends and at evening times. If fire is detected, do not delay, summon help immediately and activate your fire plan. Do not rely on others to call the Fire Service.

CHECK FIRE BREAKS AND ACCESS ROUTES Inspect fire breaks regularly and keep vegetation-free. Maintain access routes and gates to your forest.

INSURE YOUR TIMBER CROP Make sure adequate insurance cover is in place. Consider appropriate cover for re-establishment costs, timber values and fire brigade call out charges.

REPORT LOSSES If your forest is damaged by fire, report this to the nearest Garda Station and to the Forest Service (DAFM).

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