Ireland’s ‘flammable landscape’ must be managed to avoid increased wildfire risk, expert says

Wet spring means vegetation could fuel a fire when next drought arrives, forest engineer says

Ireland has a “flammable landscape” and this will have to be managed more as extended periods of drought become the norm here, an international conference on wildfires has heard.

Delegates from around the world have gathered in Tralee this week for the seventh international fire behaviour and fuels conference of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Traditional methods of controlled burning to create a “mosaic of landscapes” were being encouraged in Portugal and other countries, to prevent large wildfires engulfing the landscape.

A return to this form of land management was to be encouraged here too, forest engineer Ciarán Nugent said.


Simply leaving the landscape to rewild would encourage rather than prevent fires, he said. Some of the biggest wildfires in the UK recently had been in rewilded areas.

“We have some of the best growing conditions in Europe for vegetation,” said Mr Nugent, who was co-ordinating the IAWF event in Tralee.

The fast-moving fire that engulfed a third of the Killarney national park in April 2021 after a dry spell had been fuelled by 30 years of untreated vegetation – particularly grasses and other material.

“We have to manage the vegetation. People in Ireland won’t accept the word fuel – they say vegetation, but to a fire it’s all fuel,” he said.

Whereas lightning and amenity activities that involve people lighting fires could not be stopped, treat the vegetation, Mr Nugent said.

This year’s wet spring meant there had been no controlled burning, and that vegetation would be fuel for a fire either later this year or next year, whenever the next drought would arise.

“We plan for drought in Ireland now,” said Mr Nugent, who collaborates with Met Éireann on fire risk warnings. Soil moisture monitoring was now undertaken here to anticipate drought periods, he added.

Regardless of climate change, Ireland had “a flammable landscape”, and it had to be managed to be proactive rather than reactive, he said.

Analysis of wildfire events in Ireland through satellite and Google Earth found them to be underestimated here, said Raul Sampaio De Lima, who gave a presentation on UCC’s mapping project.

Conceição Colaço from the University of Lisbon’s School of Agriculture worked with communities after the 2017 series of deadly wildfires in Portugal.

People were traumatised and still lived in fear, she said.

“We always had wildfires and in reality we need to learn to live with them,” she said. However, fires are increasing and now occur from June to October, a wider season than previously.

Communal fire shelters were being built in remote communities difficult to access in a fire and advice on things like fire nets over chimes, cleaning gutters, not having vegetation near houses has been issued.

Ageing rural populations and the abandonment of farms was a problem but they were being encouraged to return to prescribed burning so there was a mix of landscapes to protect from fire.

“We need to manage the territory,” she said.

The 135 international delegate conference at the Rose Hotel in Tralee continues. It has links to two other simultaneous events in Canberra, Australia and Boise, Idaho in the US.