Wednesday, 15 February 2017
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the House and extend my gratitude to the Leas-Chathaoirleach for taking this Commencement matter. Last Friday evening a large gorse fire broke out on a hillside in Carrickmines, very close to the M50 motorway in south County Dublin. The fire raged for an extended period before it was brought under control by a number of fire engines from the Dublin fire brigade. Gorse fires in the Dublin mountains are a fairly common sight. This is the second fire in recent weeks. However, they are usually far more common in the summer months, with warmer, drier temperatures.
The recent fires in this part of south County Dublin have understandably caused serious concern among local residents. The damage done to the hillside by these fires is obvious but the secondary disturbances are even more telling. At rush hour last Friday evening, traffic was seriously impacted on the M50 and other surrounding roads due to the distracting nature of the fire and the measures being taken to extinguish it, but also by the impact on driver visibility due to the plumes of smoke emitting from the fire. Needless to say, a number of local residents contacted me, severely perturbed by the sight of yet another fire so close to their homes. The threat of the fire spreading was quite real for some, while the damaging impact of the smoke was also quite apparent.
As the evenings get longer and, hopefully, the wintery weather breaks, it is apparent that the outbreak of gorse fires across the country, but particularly in the Dublin mountains area, is of major concern to many people. I have tabled this Commencement matter in the hope that the Minister can acknowledge the very real concerns of so many people and provide a genuine plan in regard to how her Department and the wider group of responsible agencies are working to prevent and tackle gorse fires.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. Significant environmental damage is caused by wildfires. This issue has become more acute in recent years, as evidenced by a spate of fires in various parts of the country.
As the Senator is aware, the primary responsibility in terms of fire fighting lies with the fire service and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. With regard to gorse fires in particular, my Department is one of a number of agencies represented on the interagency gorse fire group that explores issues surrounding such fires. An Garda Síochána is also represented on the group and leads any criminal investigation. My Department, of course, co-operates fully with any Garda investigations and any other investigations that may be initiated by other statutory bodies.
Some 14% of the terrestrial area of the State is designated, and this includes many remote and inaccessible areas. Most land in special areas of conservation, special protection areas and natural heritage areas is in private ownership. My Department manages a property portfolio in respect of national parks and reserves of approximately 79,000 hectares. These important biodiversity areas are located all around the country. Given the sheer scale of property involved - for example, Killarney National Park on its own comprises over 10,000 hectares - coupled with the remote locations of much of the designated lands, and the sporadic occurrence and dynamic nature of such fires, it is very difficult to provide a visible presence on the ground to discourage and prevent unauthorised burning in the countryside. Equally, trying to identify those who deliberately set fires in open areas without concern for the consequences can be challenging. Nevertheless, with regard to the national parks in particular, on an ongoing basis officials from my Department are in close liaison with both the Garda and the fire service. My staff remain ever-vigilant when conditions exist that might result in fires in the national parks.
Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended, prohibits the cutting, grubbing, burning or destruction of vegetation, with certain strict exemptions, from 1 March to 31 August. Following a review of section 40, which involved consideration of submissions from interested parties, I announced proposals in December 2015 to introduce legislation to allow for managed hedge cutting and burning at certain times within the existing closed period on a pilot two-year basis. The legislation required to allow for these pilot measures is included in the Heritage Bill 2016, which was published in January 2016. The Bill is currently on Committee Stage in Seanad Éireann.
In the meantime, the existing provisions relating to section 40 of the Wildlife Act remain in force. My Department has taken over 50 prosecutions in recent years relating to individuals for breaches of section 40 of the Wildlife Act for the burning of gorse and vegetation. Fines were imposed in all cases, ranging from €50 to €600. In some cases, the defendants were ordered by the court to pay legal costs and expenses. Members of An Garda Síochána are also authorised officers to prosecute breaches of the Wildlife Acts. My Department will, of course, continue to work closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Garda Síochána, as appropriate, to investigate the causes of wild fires and, where evidence is forthcoming, to pursue appropriate enforcement under the Wildlife Acts or other legislation.
The main source of wild gorse fires is thought to be the deliberate starting of fires without concern for the consequences. Aside from such malicious activities, one of the main challenges is to encourage members of the public, including landowners, farmers and recreational users of publicly accessible land, to act responsibly at all times, to be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others, to be mindful of the need to protect property, both publicly owned and privately owned, and to appreciate the value of our natural heritage, particularly in our national parks, nature reserves and designated Natura 2000 sites.
I appeal to all members of the public to be conscious of the danger posed by fire, particularly fire on open ground, which can very quickly get out of control. As the Senator said, we can see how homes and lives can be threatened and we can also see the damage to the landscape and to valuable habitats caused by uncontrolled fires. Even planned or controlled burring can get out of hand very quickly, so it is critical that everyone realises the damage that can be caused to property and the health and welfare of family, neighbours, the wider community and the responding emergency services.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive and total reply, for which I am very grateful. I agree with everything she said and I appreciate the actions taken, especially by her Department, in this area. However, I would like to see the agency being slightly more proactive in the future. I think we can always be more proactive in getting the message out there that, not only is there serious danger for those acting carelessly or maliciously, but also, as the Minister stated, there are serious fines and punishments for those who are acting in such a manner. Again, I extend my sincere gratitude to the Minister.
I thank the Senator for his remarks. As I said with regard to gorse fires in particular, my Department is one of a number of agencies represented on the interagency gorse fire group that explores issues surrounding such fires. Given the sheer scale of property involved, coupled with the remote locations of many of the designated areas and the sporadic occurrence and dynamic nature of wild fires, it is very difficult to provide a visible presence in every part of the countryside. In this regard, it is important we work with local landowners.
The Heritage Bill, which is currently on Committee Stage in the Seanad, seeks to provide more flexibility and a measure of common sense on this issue. In this regard, the Wicklow uplands are a very good example of a practical partnership and shared stakeholder approach to the issue. This involves a partnership of NPWS, Teagasc forestry services, the Wicklow Uplands Council, the IFA, community interests and other landowners. The engagement has been positive and is, I believe, a great pathfinder for the rest of the country. Beginning with the field day over a year ago on burning methods, and a practical day in September last demonstrating mechanical ways of upland vegetation control, it has been very well received by all.
This is what we need to do - we need to work together. I urge Members to support the Heritage Bill so we can progress this kind of common sense approach. We can see the benefits of people working together and showing a degree of flexibility that benefits everybody concerned and, most importantly, protects wildlife and the habitat.