THOUSANDS of acres of forest in the Slieve Bloom mountains are at immediate risk of being wiped out by fire, because of EU laws which are preventing firebreaks being dug into environmentally protected bogland.
Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley is demanding that common sense prevail on the problem.
“We need a reality check here. We can’t afford to have timber in state owned forests going up in smoke. It’s a minimum disturbance to the environment that will prevent a maximum amount of damage,” he told the ‘Offaly Express’.
The mountains have the largest area of blanket bog in the country, zoned a Special Area of Protection and a National Heritage Area because of rare flora and fauna. However the tracts of open gorse and heather have suffered three serious fires in the past month alone, and are surrounded by valuable Coillte forests, with nothing to stop fire spreading and wiping them out but the diligence of the emergency services.
Firebreaks are strips of cleared land about 6m wide that stop fires spreading, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service who are responsible for the bog cannot allow it to be dug up.
Deputy Stanley is urging both semi state bodies, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service to work together to “stop a major catastrophe from happening”.
He has tabled a question to the Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, requesting immediate steps to be taken to solve the problem. “These fires are causing huge environmental damage and also pose a large risk to forests in the area. I am calling on the Office of Public Works and Coillte to put measures in place such as fire boundaries. These were used effectively to prevent forest fires in the 1960s and 70s and they now need to be brought back in to use. They should also examine the potential of the limited holding of water from streams in the area which could be used for fire-fighting.”
Meawhile, blazes that have erupted over the past three Wednesday nights, are believed to have been deliberately started.
The most recent fire destroyed 50 acres on the Tinnahinch mountain, and took fire services two hours to bring under control, though if the ground hadn’t been wet, it would have been much worse according to Coillte District Manager Richard Whelan.
“If that fire had taken off, not alone 2,000 acres of SAC land but thousands of acres of forest would be gone. It is a worry for any forester. Such a large amount of heather and gorse, if the conditions were right, it’s a potential disaster if someone puts a match to it,” he said.
The forester says that the two agencies need to sit down and decide on a protection plan for both the forest and the national park reserve, suggesting that some ground disturbance is necessary for firebreaks.
“Valuable wildlife habitat takes years to come back. You have to do a little to help a lot, if it went up it would all be destroyed,” he said.
He urged the public to alert the Gardaí immediately if they see a fire, saying that is a criminal offence under the Wildlife Act to start a fire outdoors without a permit between March 1 and August 31.