Minister Madigan welcomes expansion of the use of drone technology in efforts to combat fires as NPWS and Coillte join forces again as Condition Red – Extreme Fire Risk is announced for weekend

  • Coillte and the NPWS to use drones in Slieve Bloom mountains in latest deployment of advanced firefighting technology.
  • Midlands area is home to Ireland’s largest Nature Reserve, which is a habitat of rare birds.

Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, TD, has highlighted the work of her Department’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) as it continues its successful partnership with Coillte, Ireland’s semi-state commercial forestry company, in using drone technology to combat the spread of forest and wildfires using innovative drone technology.

This is the second year that the technology is being used to monitor designated ‘hot spots’ across regions of Dublin, Wicklow and the Slieve Bloom area in the Midlands. The drones have already been in action in the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains this month.

A Condition Red – Extreme Fire Risk warning has been issued, and will be in effect throughout the bank holiday weekend. The Condition Red warning arises from current weather pattern, and an extreme forest fire risk is deemed to exist in all areas where hazardous fuels such as dead grasses, heather and gorse exists.

The Minister commented: “I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the NPWS who, as essential workers, have been working hard protecting our natural habitats throughout the pandemic response. I am delighted that Coillte are joining us in this initiative to help combat the spread of forest and hill fires during this high-risk period.”

The drones are equipped with cameras that peer through smoke, as well as sensors for wind direction and other weather variables that affect how fires spread. They can capture continuous footage of areas deemed as high risk and spot small fires that otherwise could not have been detected until they had become much larger and harder to contain.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff member tackling a wildfire in County Wicklow, April 2020

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff member tackling a wildfire in County Wicklow, April 2020

The Slieve Bloom mountains contain a nationally important Nature Reserve, which is home to a range of rare bird and other wildlife species. Nesting birds are particularly vulnerable to fires at this time of year. Coillte also manages a significant area of commercial forestry in the region.

The Minister added: “Wildfires are not a natural phenomenon in Ireland; the main challenge 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 lands.”

As well as welcoming the ‘eyes in the sky’, Minister Madigan also encouraged the public to be eyes on the ground. “Even planned and/or “controlled” burning can get out of hand very quickly so it is critically important that every member of society realises the damage that can be caused to property and, indeed, the health and welfare of family, neighbours and the wider community, and the responding emergency services. I would urge anyone with any information on fires, no matter how trivial it may seem, to pass any information on to the Gardaí or to the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department.”

Padraig O’Donell, Regional Manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said: “The Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve is, at over 2,300 hectares, Ireland’s largest state-owned Nature Reserve. Much of the greater upland area in the reserve has been designated as a designated Special Protection Area (SPA), of special conservation interest for the hen harrier, a rare Irish bird of prey.

“Other areas of the reserve are designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to the outstanding examples mountain blanket bog in the area. Fires at this time of year can cause massive and long lasting damage to these important habitats and can devastate populations of wild birds such as hen harrier and red grouse.

“We are delighted that Coillte are joining us in this initiative in combatting wildfires during this high-risk period. When these fires happen, there can be huge environmental damage to protected habitats and wildlife. The drones will help us to establish fire outbreaks and keep wildfires from spreading.”

Deborah Meghen, Director of Stewardship, Risk and Advocacy at Coillte, said: “We are delighted to be joining forces with the NPWS on this initiative to tackle the growing risk of forest fires. Last year we used this technology for forest fire protection, which resulted in a significant reduction in forest fires with just over 50 reported, down from 150 in 2018. This represents a very good year in terms of forest damage with only 25 hectares affected, compared with over 600 hectares damaged in 2018.

“The Slieve Bloom mountains are a very important area for us in terms of productive forestry. In 2018 we had an extensive fire in this area where a large area was burned after a fire spread into a forest area from open moorland. This was a significant and very dangerous fire that was difficult to fight and required the use of a Coillte helicopter along with the Irish Air Corps and the Laois County Fire Service and members of the Defence Forces to finally bring it under control.

“We urge people to be careful this weekend and not to light fires outdoors at this time.”

Ms Meghan added: “It is important to note however that damage from forest fires and wildfires would be far more significant every year were it not for the efforts of Coillte and NPWS staff along with local fire services and the Irish Air Corps.

“Coillte manages the state’s investment in timber and these are the trees that build homes and businesses so their loss is also a significant economic impact.”

With the forest fire weather warning still in place, Coillte and NPWS are asking people to remain vigilant and report any fires they see to the local fire brigade.

Coillte recommend the following steps to prevent forest fires at this time;

• DO NOT light fires and be careful of all activity involving fires
• REPORT any suspicious activity you may observe
• REPORT any forest fires you see to local fire brigade
• DO NOT approach forest fires under any circumstance, they are extremely dangerous
• KEEP access points and forest entrances clear for emergency services

For more information, please visit www.coillte.ie / www.npws.ie

Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, 23 Kildare Street, Dublin , D02 TD30. Tel: 01 631 3800 / LoCall: 1890 383 000

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