Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

No time to burn in tackling the danger posed by forest fires

William Melville

Fire can seriously damage one's health, and forest fires can seriously damage one's pension plan. With the fire season upon us, it is a timely reminder to all woodland owners that they should insure against fire damage, especially as the provision in the Reconstitution of Woodland Grant that covered the costs of replanting following a forest fire has been withdrawn.

Consequently, anyone affected must now replant at his own expense, or alternatively in the case of a forest less than 10 years old, repay all grants and premiums received to date.

Any woodland insurance policy should also cover loss of value -- after all, a forest is an asset that appreciates considerably in value as the trees grow.

Replanting is likely to cost about €3,000/ha, and if you add to that the loss attributable to several years' growth, it doesn't take a genius to calculate the degree of financial hardship that can result.

While Ireland might be green and damp, if not downright wet, and forest fires are nothing like as dramatic as in hotter, drier regions, they are nevertheless a frequent occurrence and are a risk during dry spells in spring and early summer.

The cause isn't the trees themselves -- a growing tree isn't particularly combustible, comprising as it does about two thirds water -- but the ground vegetation adjoining and within a forest. Anyone who has walked across a molinia-covered hillside during a dry period in spring will appreciate the tinder-box conditions underfoot, and it dries out remarkably quickly from the usual sodden blanket, especially when a dry wind is added to the mix. Come June, I tend to heave a sigh of relief when the fresh, new season's growth starts to take over.

Forest fires have become a serious problem in recent years, with hundreds of separate incidents recorded on both Coillte and private lands. In 2010 alone Coillte recorded 547 fires, in which more than 780ha of forests were destroyed. Some, inevitably, are started deliberately, but most are the result of careless action (fires hardly ever start spontaneously in Irish conditions) either on the part of the general public using the forest for recreation or where "controlled" burning of vegetation gets out of control nearby.

The latter has been the focus of a campaign launched by the gardai last year to raise awareness both of the dangers posed by burning, and the precautions that a landowner is legally obliged to take.

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These include a requirement to notify the local gardai of the intention to burn anywhere within one mile of a wooded area at least seven days in advance. Furthermore, it should be remembered that it is illegal to burn growing vegetation between March 1 and August 31.

Complementary to the gardai campaign, the Forest Service has recently published a detailed Code of Practice for Prescribed Burning and this, together with a usefully synopsised version condensed into just four pages, is available to download from the Forest Service section of the Department of Agriculture website.

It provides advice on planning and preparing burning operations, risk assessment, contingency planning, guidance on performing safe, controlled burning, and template forms for notification and recording procedures. It should be vital reading for anyone contemplating this potentially lethal job.

A fire plan should be an integral part of every woodland owner's management plan and, at a minimum, should include maps showing access and assembly points for fire-fighting personnel, sources of water and any potentially hazardous areas.

Those involved in fighting fires are unlikely to have an intimate knowledge of the woodland in question.

The plan should also include the contact details for the emergency services, local Coillte and private foresters and neighbouring landowners, and it is advisable to ensure that the local fire brigade has a copy of the most recent plan at all times, as well as any other key people. Further planning is essential, and this includes ensuring that fire breaks, which should be at least 6m wide, are maintained adequately and free of vegetation.

Vigilance is vital.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email:

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