Time to put a stop to the annual frenzy of burning Ireland's hillsides
THE issue of illegal gorse burning has been a problem for many years but events in Kerry and elsewhere in the last week have shown just how dangerous these fires can be.
The Kerry fire service had their busiest few days in decades as gorse fires engulfed vast swathes of land in around 20 locations. Almost the entire fire service in the county was on duty battling the blazes, which threatened several homes and left only a small reserve of fire fighters available to deal with other potential emergencies.
Killarney National Park, one of Ireland's natural jewels, was the scene of the greatest drama with one of the largest fires ever seen in the area threatening to engulf the park. So serious was the situation that the Air Corps were drafted in to help douse the fire from the air as the emergency was monitored from a 'situation room, in Dublin. Lives were not directly at risk but the impact on one of the country's most scenic areas and most popular tourist attractions was potentially catastrophic.
Kerry of course was not the only area affected: the fire services were also called on to deal with similar fires which burned out of control in Galway, Dublin, Tyrone and Derry.
A crackdown on illegal gorse burning, which is prohibited between March and August, has long been promised but, as is often the case with annual problems, once the burning season is over these planned crackdowns tend to be put on the long finger until the issue reappears the following year.
Such crackdowns were promised in 2011 and 2012 after gorse fires destroyed thousands of acres of land in Cork and Kerry. Yet little has happened since and no prosecutions have occurred. This of course is down to the difficulty of identifying where a fire actually started and who lit it but surely more can be done to catch these unthinking individuals who continue to flout the law and put lives and home at risk year after year.
In many small communities people are well aware who has or is lighting these fires but a code of silence means authorities are rarely told.
There have been calls to extend the gorse burning season by a month as the Irish climate means it is often difficult for farmers to burn off gorse before the March 1 deadline. Advocates argue that such an extension to the burning season would reduce the risk of fires being lit covertly and getting out of control.
However, while we can accept that farmers need to clear gorse and other vegetation in order to maximise the use of their land, burning the hillsides - aside from being unacceptably dangerous - is badly out of sync with our environmental commitments in this day and age.
Whatever happens, those who deliberately light fires in the prohibited period should be tracked down and be subjected to the full rigours of the law to discourage such activity in the future.
Last week Ireland nearly witnessed a calamity in Killarney National Park and we must not wait until a life is lost of a family is made homeless before taking action to deal with this perennial problem. For once let's deal with the problem before it's too late.