Donegal’s Acting Chief Fire Officer, Joseph McTaggart, repeated his appeal to the public to exercise caution, as fire brigades continued to fight gorse fires that have burned in the county during the past week.
“I would ask the public to be vigilant and to exercise caution, to ensure no sources of ignition come in contact with undergrowth at the moment,” Acting Chief Fire Officer McTaggart said. “It could be as simple as throwing a cigarette out of a car window.
“If a house is close to gorseland, it could be putting out ashes -- they could be a source of ignition for a fire,” he said.
By noon yesterday, there had been about 45 gorse fires in Donegal since last Thursday, March 28th, most of them in west Donegal.
Yesterday afternoon, fire brigades from Dungloe, Gaoth Dobhair and Falcarragh fought gorse fires at Derrydruel, Dungloe; at Loughanure; and at Carrickataskin, Gaoth Dobhair.
A gorse fire yesterday afternoon in the area of Loch na nDeora, Ranafast, burned a large area of bog; at a nearby house an oil tank caught fire and exploded, with some damage to the gable end of the house, near the roof. The gorse fire was extinguished and crews used foam on the areas of the explosion.
The acting chief fire officer said they had not yet determined a specific cause for the fires, but said there were a number of factors that contributed to them: the ongoing, long dry spell of weather, dried undergrowth and dry winds coming from the east.
Patricia Herald of Meendernasloe, Annagry, called the fire that burned through gorseland near Loughanure overnight Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday the worst she had ever seen.
“I had never seen a fire this bad,” Mrs. Herald said. “I have seen fires, but I’ve been there since I was four years of age and I never saw anything like that. It was frightful.” Mrs. Herald’s house can be seen in a photograph that was posted to Facebook: her traditional bungalow was in the foreground; a wall of red flame and smoke rose in the background.
A friend’s son had been travelling from Dungloe before 1am when he saw the fire and asked his mother to ring Mrs. Herald, to check on her. “When I went outside, it was raging,” Mrs. Herald said.
“When you stood out the back you could see it was coming,” Mrs. Herald said. “I kept praying that it would stop.”
A neighbour and her friend’s son stayed with her, as her worried children rang from Letterkenny and Sligo.
Mrs. Herald said she didn’t get to sleep Tuesday night as fire crews fought the blaze. She was grateful for them.
“They did work hard -- I felt sorry for them,” she said. Overall on Tuesday, Donegal fire crews had battled 13 gorse fires, including blazes in Gaoth Dobhair and Kincasslagh.
Donegal County Council issued a warning on March 28th, reminding people that gorse and other undergrowth were extremely dry in this period of dry weather, and urging people to take all necessary measures to prevent gorse fires and similar fires. “Fires are likely to spread rapidly and get out of control, causing unnecessary damage and putting houses, property and possibly life at risk,” a council spokesperson warned.
Mr. McTaggart also wanted to remind the public that it is an offense under the Wildlife Act to burn uncultivated land between March 1st and Aug. 31st of any year.
He said that not only do the fires do damage, but they tie up the brigades that are fighting them.
“It also means that if a brigade is required at a house fire or road traffic collision, that could be delayed,” Mr. McTaggart said.
There had been some local suggestions that one of the gorse fires in the Dungloe area over the weekend could have been started by a sky lantern, also known as a Chinese lantern, a small paper lantern with a candle inside that is set aloft.
Mr. McTaggart said that once those lanterns are released, it is not possible to exercise control over where they are going or where they will land.
“It is highly irresponsible to engage in that type of activity at any time, but more so at the moment, when conditions are so ripe for ignition of fires and their rapid spread,” Mr. McTaggart said.
Dungloe and the Rosses were among the areas hardest hit by the gorse fires that swept through Donegal in 2011. Sinn Féin Cllr. Marie-Therese Gallagher, called on the public to heed the warnings issued by Mr. McTaggart and the county council.
“Nobody needs to be reminded around the Rosses how fires can get out of control and how whole populations and homes can be threatened,” the Dungloe-based councillor said. She said, “Fire and water -- there’s no stopping them when they get going.”
There were reports of local people arriving at the scene of some of the fires and yesterday, west Donegal activist Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig said that Donegal County Council, in conjunction with the fire service, should set up a training programme to instruct volunteers on the best methods of fighting gorse fires.
Mr. Mac Giolla Easbuig suggested properly trained local men and women could then assess whether they could bring the fire under control or whether the fire service needed to be called.
“These fires can cause widespread disruption and huge environmental damage if they manage to get out of control, as we have seen especially in 2011,” Mr. Mac Giolla Easbuig said. “When this happens the fire service are then stretched to their operational capacity and this in turn puts lives at risk.”