Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Friday 22 June 2018

'A forest fire means total write-off and every fire is caused by humans'

 

Blaze alert: A fire rages out of control near the iconic Gougane Barra church in Co Cork last year Photo: John Delea
Blaze alert: A fire rages out of control near the iconic Gougane Barra church in Co Cork last year Photo: John Delea

David Medcalf

Meet Mick Power, a man with one of the most striking job titles in the country. The 60 year old Kilkenny native serves as national risk manager for Coillte, the country's leading forestry company. And right now he is on a state of high alert as this is a very risky time of year in his business.

A lay person with no knowledge of how trees grow might assume that forest fires are most likely to occur in the heat of summer.

Not so. Spring is the danger period, from now until May, and there have already been a series of blazes to deal with in the Wicklow neck of the woods. Indeed, Wicklow is the part of Ireland most prone to such destructive incidents as the county is the most afforested in Ireland.

With 35,000 hectares under trees, it is reckoned that 29pc of Wicklow is forestry.

Mick appeals to anyone going down to the woods today to be careful and not to light up. He also asks members of the public to make contact with the emergency services promptly if they spot flames.

The man from Callan has been up to his neck in timber since he first enrolled for training in Offaly: "I have always grown trees." His education as a forester was completed at the training school in Avondale, adjacent to Rathdrum. The school is long closed though Avondale House and its grounds remain a magnet for everyone who enjoys a walk in the woods.

Mick Power
Mick Power

"Avondale was excellent," says Mick of his time there, "with a practical lean on the training. My time there just flew. Something was lost when the training school at Avondale closed." Morning lessons in the classroom were followed by practical sessions out of doors after lunch. Those who follow in his footsteps nowadays submit to a much more academic regime at UCD or at the institute of technology in Waterford.

In his time, the class that graduated in 1980 were guaranteed a job with the State's forestry service, which dispatched him to Munster. His first posting involved travelling around Limerick, Kerry and North Cork researching disease control and manure. He reckons that over the course of a 38-year career, which included a stint as Wicklow district manager, he has worked in 17 different counties.

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There was much discussion at first about the best species to grow on the land available. And those best species consistently turned out to be the conifers which are the typical commercial forest in this country. While the vast stands of spruce do not appeal to all the critics, Mick is unapologetic: "You cannot grow oak at the top of Mount Leinster. The Sitka has its niche."

A native of North America, Sitka spruce has made itself at home in Ireland where the climate is in many ways very similar to that of the Rockies in Washington and British Columbia.

The drive to spruce up large swathes of upland was underpinned at the start by the European Union through the Common Agricultural Policy. Ireland for so long the great underachiever of European forestry suddenly made great strides to catch up.

Along the way, the Irish Government established Coillte as the State's forestry in 1989. From the outset, the new firm's brief was to take a commercial attitude to exploiting all those Sitkas.

"We have made a profit every year since 1991," reports Mick Power proudly. "Last year it was €47 million." The role of the company has expanded to develop of large saw milling ventures in Clonmel and Waterford. It has also taken advantage of its vast land holding to foster initiatives in wind farming the provision of mast sites. But growing trees remains the fundamental activity and there is no doubt as to where many of those trees grow best.

"Wicklow is defined as the Garden of Ireland and it is certainly very productive from a forestry point of view," says Mick who spends much of his working life at the company offices in Newtownmountkennedy. Coillte is a significant player in the local economy, employing around 300 people directly in the county, while 700 more work in jobs associated with the industry.

Trees are slowly transforming the Irish landscape with Wicklow leading the way. After centuries of exploitation without re-planting, it is estimated that just one per cent of the land of Ireland was woodland in 1900. This was slowly cranked up to five per cent by 1980 and this figure has more than doubled since. Around 10,000 hectares are planted with trees annually around Ireland.

"The money is made from conifers," stresses Mick who takes particular pride seeing forests maturing along a swathe of Wicklow that includes The Sally Gap, Glendalough and the Glen of Imaal. More than half of the trees are the much derided Sitka spruces which thrive on bleak uplands.

2I love the Sitka spruce. I can see the beauty of it. It grows in the places where nothing else will, the places where you would not put out a milk bottle. It gets a lot of hard press it does not deserve."

Though Coillte has made efforts to 'soften' the visual impact of their plantations with other species grown along the edges, conifers remain the dominant choice. Compare the situation here with Eastern Europe where some of the most fertile soil on the planet is devoted to forestry.

Or compare with France where many local communities take pride in shared ownership of their woods, with citizens entitled to take their share of timber for their home fires.

The situation is Ireland is not generally as cosy, though Mick Power insists that the gate to Coillte property is not generally locked against hikers or cyclists.

"We have an open forest policy. Walk your dog or cycle your bike - all we ask is that people behave themselves." Regrettably, some visitors take advantage and dump rubbish, which has to be collected at considerable expense.

As the person in charge of risk management, a man who presents a can-do attitude to life is faced with any number of reasons to be anything but cheerful. The list includes disease and high winds, not to mention a particular set of criminals.

"Timber thieves take felled timber," he notes grimly, frustrated that top quality mature trees may end up sold as common firewood.

The trick is to make sure that the harvest is transferred with minimum delay to the factories.

Damage done by would-be rally drivers practising on Coillte's vast network of tracks is another bugbear.

The company is happy to accommodate properly run motor sport where practical but trespassing drivers often rip up the tracks.

The risk manager is also very aware that deer and commercial forestry are not always easy bed-fellows.

The deer have all but eliminated Douglas fir from the woods because they find the young trees so tasty. They make a light snack of the fir bark and erecting effective deer proof fencing has proven impractical.

Culling Deer

Mick makes no apology for controlled culling of Bambi & Co to prevent the population and the damage running out of control.

"I always love to see deer," he admits. "They are part and parcel of the forest, but you have to maintain control"

At least one third of Ireland's deer population lives in Wicklow and culling runs to thousands each year. Though the nibbling of bark by deer or rabbits is a nuisance, though thieves pose a criminal threat, there is no doubt as to Mick Power's top priority.

It is not wind damage that keeps him awake at night, nor is it the effect of disease, such as the dieback fungus currently laying waste to the stock of ash trees.

"Fire is the number one risk," he reports simply. "A fire means total write-off." And every fire is caused by humans, he is adamant.

He has seen thousands of euro worth of woodland wiped out in Wicklow and Dublin already in 2018 with outbreaks at Tibradden, Glendalough and Glen of Imaal.

At this time of year, sappy new growth has not fully started, with the old growth brown and dry - effectively a tinderbox.

Given unfavourable wind conditions, a small blaze may be fanned into an inferno.

One fire in Galway last year inflicted €4 million of damage and promoted Coillte to review the fire-fighting operation.

As a result, the contacts listed on risk manager Mick Power's phone cover an impressive range.

The full resources of the State are on standby - not only local fire brigades but also the Defence Forces and Civil Defence.

One specialist contractor is on call with helicopters to carry 'bambi buckets', which are used to scoop up 1,000 litres of water at a time to douse the flames.

Mick would rather not be calling up the choppers. He appeals to anyone who sees an outbreak of fire to contact 999 pronto and, above all, never to light up in forests.


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