Firefighters tackle massive forest blaze on Slieve Blooms

Thursday, 12 July 2018

FIREFIGHTING efforts continued on the Slieve Bloom mountains for five days after a major fire broke out and burnt large swathes of land in the mountain range.
Reportedly one of the largest forest fires during the current heatwave, the blaze broke out on the Offaly side of the mountain range on Wednesday, July 4 last. Wind and dry conditions saw it quickly spread across the border to Laois by Wednesday night as the temperatures in the area reached 26C.
Fire services in both Laois and Offaly along with Coillte tackled the blaze when it initially broke out in a bid to contain the fire on the Slieve Blooms. However, the Irish Air Corps was called in to give air assistance via helicopter while members of the army were also deployed to assist on the ground.
Over a four day period, in tandem with a massive multi-faceted ground force presence from both Laois and Offaly Fire services, Coillte, and 75 troops from the 3rd and 6th Infantry battalion, the Irish Air Corps dropped in the region of 140,000 litres of water, in an effort to extinguish the massive blaze, which has destroyed an extensive area of forestry.
According to a spokesperson from Coillte, the fire was contained but "not fully extinguished" on Saturday last. And, despite significant efforts from all agencies on the mountain, hotspots again reignited on the mountain. Crews then continued to work through the weekend to contain the fire with both ground crews and helicopter assistance.
Coillte is now reporting "work is continuing to manage hotspots" and they are continuing to monitor the situation. However, with the status red weather warning in place, further flare ups could be likely.
"The fire grew very quickly and rapidly"
Speaking to the Tribune, Clive Dukes, Senior Assistant Chief Fire Officer with Offaly Fire & Rescue Service, reported they had finished their operations in the Slieve Blooms as of Tuesday, July 10. However, he said Coillte were continuing to "keep an eye" on the situation while the helicopter was believed to be "still putting water on hotspots" in the area.
Birr fire brigade was initially called to the scene on Wednesday last before Ferbane was contacted to attend. Tankers were also brought in from Tullamore and Edenderry. According to Mr Dukes, the "fire grew very quickly and rapidly because there was a lot of wind" on Wednesday last.
Describing it as a tandem operation, Mr Dukes outlined when the helicopters were dropping water their crews were dealing with the smaller fires on the Wolftrap and then coming back to the other side of the forest. "The reality, however, is when the fire gets into the forestry, it's difficult for any firefighter or organisations to fight then fire other then by air."
Mr Dukes said it then became a "containment operation" for the fire services to ensure the "fire didn't jump from one side of the road to the other. That was our main priority at that stage," he added.
It was a multi-faceted operation between the Offaly and Laois Fire Services, Coillte, the Air Corps and the Army. "There was a lot of co-operation in relation to resources and where they were required. This was very much a joint effort. You can't fight a fire like that without co-ordination," Mr Duke pointed out.
Talking about general fire safety outdoors, Mr Dukes noted the county is expecting very little rain the coming weeks. "A little bit of of common sense approach in relation to there being no burning of farm land waste, regardless of where it's being burnt. All applications for burning are being currently being refused." He also asked the public not to be burning any camp fires or BBQs in the vicinity of wooded areas and also to be careful of where people are extinguishing their cigarettes.
Air Corps Drop 140,000 Litres Of Water Over Four Days
Captain Michael Barcoe, of the Irish Air Corps said they had spent four days firefighting in the Slieve Blooms from last Thursday until Sunday last in conjunction with the joint operation with the ground force. During this time, two aircraft were deployed - the Augusta Westland AW139 and Eurocopter EC 135. They were equipped with a Bambi bucket firefighting kit, whose bucket can scoop up 1,200 litres of water from a water source .
According to Capt Barcoe, the advantage of using the helicopter was that it could access areas that were inaccessible to firefighting crews on the ground that included gorse and forest terrain on the north east side of the Slieve Blooms.
"The advantage that we offer is that 1,200 litres of water can be dropped in one go over small concentrated areas and it has pretty much an immediate effect at actually quenching the fire in that area," the Captain explained. Since the start of the Irish Air Corps national fire fighting operations, they have dropped in the region of almost 500,000 litres of water in a ten day period.
Looking at the efforts in the Slieve Blooms, Capt Barcoe said they dropped 140,000 litres of water which was initially taken from Ballyfin lake on Thursday last. However, a man made dam was then dug into the side of the mountain, capable of holding approximately 20,000 litres of water. This was filled by local farmers carrying water to the site in slurry tankers. This allowed the Air Corps to reduce their transit time between picking up water and dropping it over the fire. "It allowed us to get more water down in a shorter space of time," the captain added.
Capt Barcoe confirmed the Air Corps helicopters left the area on Sunday night and they haven't been requested to return to the locality. "This is not to say we will not be back. We do have crews on stand if the request is made to return to the Slieve Blooms," he concluded.
Birr Municipal District Express Gratitude To Firefighting Efforts
Cllr John Leahy extended his congratulations to the Offaly Fire Services and the work they had being done in Kinnitty, following the extensive fire in the Slieve Blooms recently. "They have being doing a fantastic job particularly their reactions times. At the end of the day, these are people putting their lives on the line when they getting into the appliance and head off. We have been very fortunate we had not had such a major incident as this before but this proves how good the command centre and how good your leadership is. You should take huge praise from us as county councillors on this." He then congratulated Frank Heslin, Director of Services for Sports/Fire & Emergency Services with Offaly County Council and all of his team.
Cllr John Clendennen expressed similiar sentiments as Cllr Leahy. He said there was a "huge effort" being made to get over 1,000 acre of forestry on fire under control involving Offaly Fire & Rescue Service, Laois Fire & Rescue, Coillte, Air Corps. He also noted the mammoth communication efforts to "get the word out there" and to tell the public to stay away from the scene and also in keeping people updated about what was happening on the ground.
Cllr Clendennen was very complimentary of the huge effort by volunteers in the locality coming forward with refreshments and food for the firefighters since last week. "There is a true community spirit alive in the area," he enthused.
Reacting to the councillors' sentiments, Mr Heslin, pointed out "the smallest little thing can set a fire off and I would like to re-emphasis the importance of people being vigilant outside considering these current dry conditions.
Threats To Hen Harrier Population
This serious fire, affecting large parts of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, poses a substantial threat to one of the largest and most productive hen harrier populations in the country and experts say that the "timing of the outbreak couldn't be worse as the chicks are still in the next and are incapable of flight".
There are 10 nests confirmed in the Slieve Blooms in 2017 (17% of the total from all of the special protection areas for breeding hen harrier). A total of 16 hen harrier chicks fledged from these nests in 2017. This accounted for 25 % of the total from all the special protection areas designed for breeding hen harrier.
The Hen Harrier project urged everyone to continue to be vigilant about the current wildfire risk. "Don't light a flame near dry vegetation and if you see fire, report it immediately," it stated.
According to a statement sent to the Tribune, the project said: "Any further outbreaks could be devastating locally but could also divert resources away from the serious incident in the Slieve Bloom mountains and increase the risk to one of Ireland's most vulnerable hen harrier breeding grounds."
Meanwhile, Coillte reiterated the message of vigilance, reporting and no burning at this time and our key messages are:
Coillte recommend the following steps to prevent forest fires at this time
1. DO NOT light fires and be careful of all activity involving fires
2. REPORT any suspicious activity you may observe
3. REPORT any forest fires you see to local fire brigade
4. DO NOT approach forest fires under any circumstance, they are extremely dangerous
5. KEEP access points and forest entrances clear for emergency services


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