Time to catch the firestarters

Imagine 2040 — and how much will have changed.

How many new developments we will have seen.

I think of 2040 because that will be the year before the landscape that was at Cloosh Valley will next be as it was last Friday. Before arrival of the flames that have eaten it away. And here in Mayo, we have also been victims to out of control gorse fires — See the havoc wreaked on the Brennan family in Kiltimagh with their home destroyed.

The landscape and the ecology has been scarred and so has the wonderful wildlife which made it their home, who were there before all of us.

And although many may disregard their concerns, you have to imagine the terror that was experienced by those poor creatures. When the threat of fire is detected, the animals who can, outrun the flames, fly off, or burrow under a rock or beneath the surface of the ground.

But there are many others who are not built for speed, who are not heat retardant, whose soft tissues are no match for the intense temperatures that engulf the stones, the rocks, the trees, the bushes they call home.

The rapidity with which such a fire can strike bewilders them into a confusion that sees them lose their lives easily. When surrounded and left with nowhere to run, they sit in shock. And melt and die. And cry and scream. And the firefighters who have worked there will tell you of those plaintive cries.

Many of the firefighters who have been battling gorse fires this season have spoken of finding the lucky ones, who are merely singed. There are others whose bodies are burned to a degree than prevents them from escaping the never ending flames. Wildlife experiences a sense of terror and anxiety when confronted with forest wildfires.

It may take animal generations too for the wildlife to recover. While we can assume that those who survive will just get on with it, the environment in which they thrived has been destroyed.

Humans, being the highly adaptive creatures we are, are more likely better able to deal with such catastrophes than our wildlife neighbours. And we have insurance and counselling and support.

In the places where the fires were the hottest and the damage the most extensive, it will take many years, perhaps generations, for the habitat to return to normal. It remains unknown how well the wildlife will be able to adapt to new circumstances and habitats. Perhaps some of the more adaptable species will be able to recover and survive but certainly some of the less adaptable species will not make it.

There is a tremendous cost to all of this, apart from the financial. When forest fires are at their hottest, even all the organic matter (seeds of life ) in the topsoils are destroyed. The resulting problems of erosion will have to be dealt with long before there is any chance of regrowth of vegetation.

People have to know who the hell lit these fires, for whatever misguided selfish reason.

The law is clear — There are genuine and legitimate reasons for managing gorse and scrub such as when such materials pose a threat to homes or property. However, removal must be undertaken in a safe, controlled, and monitored way. It is absolutely imperative that people act within the law.

Under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 it is an offence to burn any vegetation growing on land not then cultivated between March 1 and August 31 of any year.

Given the destruction to wildlife and the unprecedented danger to homes, businesses and communities, the existing legislation and, in particular, its enforcement needs to be reviewed.

The loss of Rescue 116 this year showed us just how much our emergency services have to put themselves on the line because of our foibles. We cannot put them at risk because we want to clear land. No agricultural or greedy purpose can justify sending those fire crews, those helicopter teams, as they make that tiring journey from the lake to the fire, filling their bambi buckets to dump over the flames. Back and forth, back and forth, each journey a risk, each one bringing a new danger.

I have to say I wasn’t too encouraged by the words of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed yesterday morning. His determination to punish those who start reckless fires seemed very milk and water to me. We have to look at really enforcing the laws when it comes to gorse fires. None of us has the right to cause so much havoc. None of us.

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