We need more trees to stop the fires

Emma Cownie

Gorse Fire in the Rosses, West Donegal

On Easter Monday I was gripped by the unfolding story of a massive, dangerous gorse fire spreading across the Rosses, a part of West Donegal. It worried that it would get completely out of hand and burn down people’s homes and destroy their livelihoods. I was checking twitter and my newsfeed for news of what was happening on an hourly basis to see if the fire had been brought under control. I was also worried about our own house in the Rosses. I love the area very much and feel attached to it. Yet, I felt guilty of being an outsider, what my husband calls a “Sasanach” (Saxon) or a “blow in” to the area only concerned about my house when brave local people were fighting desperately to quell the fires and save their homes. Actually, I was full of admiration for the community spirit and sheer grit and determination of the local people to fight the fire and save each other’s homes.

Donegal is often called the “forgotten country” on account of the belief that it is ignored by the government of Ireland, even in times of crisis. Maybe it’s because it’s so far away from the capital Dublin, or because of its location on the border with “troubled” Northern Ireland. On Monday that perception seemed to be borne out by events.

Over to Kinclassagh (Emma Cownie)

It had been an unseasonably warm Easter weekend. It was the warmest for 70 years. This followed on from the become tinder-boxes. Spring and early summer is the warmest Irish winter on record, that was also drier than average. Unfortunately, this has dried out the moorlands in many parts of Ireland. In recent weeks there have been many fires over moorland in Ireland and the UK; Limerick, Kerry, Down, and across 700 acres of Yorkshire. Moorlands (and in Ireland the boglands) are “usually” by their very nature wet and soggy places but climate change has changed all that; in these drier conditions, (along with the heather and gorse that grow on them) have most dangerous time of year for gorse fires, between i.e. March and June, when ground vegetation is dead and dry following the winter period.

The Rosses in West Donegal seems particularly vulnerable to gorse fires breaking out. Gorse is a stubborn plant with thick branches, prickly thorns and vibrant yellow flowers during the spring and summer. It is also highly flammable. At least three gorse fires broke out last week; one near Kinclassagh, one near Crolly and another near Drumnacart, Annagry, which actually destroyed two homes.

The gorse fire that broke early in the morning on Easter Morning between Loughanure & Annagry was a different order of scary fire. The dry conditions coupled with the ever-present wind whipped it up and it quickly got out of control and spread over a large area threatened many homes. Fires in windy dry conditions will soon leap and fly. Just to complicate things there was a separate fire at Belcruit/Kinclassagh down the road. It has since been claimed that a fire hydrant, in the village was blocked, preventing fire crews and locals from having a readily available water supply to combat the blaze.

Gorse Fire

When this fire started 5 fire engines came to try and put it out. By the end of the day, 15 fire engines had come from all over Donegal. One fire engine even came across on the ferry from Arranmore Island. Hundreds of local volunteers also came out to help, many of them were fighting to save their own homes from being destroyed. Trenches were dug, houses were doused with water. It must have been hard, dirty and frightening work. Farmers brought slurry spreaders filled with water to douse the area. Others looked after the people fighting the flames, bringing them bottled water and food.

Aerial View of the Fire

One fireman told a local newspaper, the Donegal Daily: “This is unreal stuff. I have battled a lot of gorse fires over the years but this is amongst the most dangerous. “Everything is bone dry and there is a strong wind so these are perfect conditions for the fires to spread rapidly.”

The local authorities and the Pat “The Cope” Gallager, the TD for Donegal, lost no time in asking (at 9.30am) for The Irish Air Corp for helicopters to help fight the fire. For some reason, they were not forthcoming. The Council waited and waited. Then a group of the firefighters fighting the separate fire near Belcruit were trapped by the flames. The area had been doused by water, so they weren’t in immediate danger, but it was a very worrying plight for them to be in. I can’t imagine what that must have been like to be surrounded by flames, like that.

Donegal County Council decided they could not wait any longer for the Air Corps, and decided to hire a private helicopter to fight the fire. It took 7 hours before the Air Corps finally arrived from Dublin on the scene at 5pm and proceeded to scoop up 42,000 litres of water from the nearby sea and lakes and drop them on the fire. They seemed to have made all the difference.

The Firemen at Belcruit escaped the flames when water was dropped on the fire, clearing a safe path for them. It must be a very difficult job aiming the bucket at the fire but the Air Corps are very good at it.

I got quite a shock when I saw the photo of Kinclassaagh below on twitter. It is a village I have painted a few times. You may be able to pick out the blue house to the left of the photograph below, which is in the centre of my painting “In the Shadow of Errigal”. The houses in the village are presumably being in doused in water in preparation of the worst-case scenario.

Kinclassagh, West Donegal
In the Shadow of Errigal (Emma Cownie)

Fortunately, by the evening the fire was eventually brought under control and no new fires have broken out. The images of the aftermath are shocking. So many houses are surrounded by blackened gorse. They were clearly very close to being destroyed. It must have been the stuff of nightmares for the people who lived in them.

Helicopter dropping water on the fire

The fire will also have been devastating for local wildlife and bird populations, their chicks and nests were not saved. This is the sort of event that Birdwatch Ireland calls “carnage in our mountains and hills, yet silence from our Government”. Rare plants whose precious seedlings have just emerged are also scorched along with hares, badgers, lizards, frogs, mice and all sorts of beetles.

When I first heard of these terrible wildfires, I assumed that it was due to climate change and global warming. Yet, when I did a bit of research, I found that it was a bit more complicated than that. Yes, dry winters and summers are factors but it seems that there are other reasons that have contributed to this issue, not only in Ireland but in the British Isles as a whole. So it seemed to me that these issues need to be dealt with more urgently than they have been so far. For all our sakes. Tackling the problem of the gorse fires could actually help with the issue of climate change.

Most gorse fires are started by humans, although we don’t actually know how Monday’s fires were started, and it seems pretty clear that they were not started by a local farmer. In many cases, however, it seems that wildfires are started deliberately by landowners, or by arsonists, or even accidentally by tourists’ barbeques (as in the case of the recent fire in Yorkshire). Northern Irish fire service estimates that in one month in 2017 they dealt with more than 500 fires, of which 466, it believed, were started deliberately.

Gorse is so difficult to clear, its not uncommon for farmers sometimes burn the land so it can be cleared. It is currently against the law in Ireland to burn land from 28 February to 1st September. This is to protect nesting birds and their young. In theory, severe penalties can be imposed on farmers who break the law, including loss of their Single Farm Payment, fines of up to €1,900, imprisonment, and county councils can charge property owners for fire brigade call-outs, but all a bit useless if these are not used. The Irish Wildlife Trust reported that 97 illegal gorse fires were started in a two month period in 2017, but no landowners were actually prosecuted for these deliberate fires.

Paradoxically, part of the problem is that these fires don’t happen often enough. Many Irish hill farms have been abandoned or neglected and regular burning has not taken place, allowing layers of detritus to build upon the ground while gorse and heather have grown leggy, meaning that fires are harder to control. Thus, the rise in the number of gorse fires may have more to do changes in farming practices than climate change, as such.

In an ideal world, I believe, upland farmers would not be paid to clear land but instead, be paid to grow native trees on their land. Yes, call me a tree-hugging hippy, but by reintroducing trees, shrubs, birds, insects, and large mammals would have their ancient habitats restored. Ireland needs more trees. The world needs more trees. This is a good way to tackle climate change, instead of cutting down the rain forest at ever increasing rates. More trees also reduce the risk of flooding. A recent study by Bangor University (the one in Wales) found that water was absorbed 67 times faster by native woodland than on grass. Once 80% of Ireland was covered in trees, now it’s only 10.5%; the lowest in Europe (the average is well over 30%). Of that native trees comprise just 2% of the total! These incredibly low numbers are primarily due to human activity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to a lesser extent also activities in the early 20th century.

The government does plan to increase Ireland’s tiny forest cover to 18 percent by 2046, under the Strategic Plan for the Development of Forestry, but unfortunately, the vast majority of new trees are Sitka spruce tree farms. These are non-native trees, planted in crowded, rows, robbing light from the forest floor. They do not encourage wildlife in the way that native trees would. They are barren places. They also need fertilizers and pesticides. They are patently, the wrong trees. The woodland League recently ran an excellent scheme supported by President Michael D Higgins, called “ Forest In A Box “, involving 700 children in nine primary schools in Co Dublin, Co Offaly and Co Clare. The “box” in question is a native tree seed box — a metre square — which can provide up to 200 healthy native trees every two years. It would be great if this scheme could be rolled to the whole of the country, maybe there are plans to do so.

One thing they are not short of in West Donegal is community spirit. On Monday evening, the brave people of West Donegal will come together again, for a massive clean-up operation to collect all the objects like water bottles, spades and face masks that were dropped whilst fighting last week’s fire. Yet again it will be all hands to the pump. It will also be a good opportunity for the brave, hard-working people of Donegal to “debrief” after such a traumatic experience. This fire won’t be forgotten for a long time, but fortunately, no lives were lost.

Photo Credit: Brid Sweeney

Originally published at https://emmafcownie.com on April 28, 2019.

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Landscape painter. Inspired by light and colour. Living in Derry & Donegal. www.emmafcownie.com

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Emma Cownie

Emma Cownie

Landscape painter. Inspired by light and colour. Living in Derry & Donegal. www.emmafcownie.com

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