Ireland on fire

Rachel Andrews

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In early May of last year, when gorse and forest fires began burning across Co. Donegal, Tony Finnerty took a call from a forest caretaker near Dungloe, on the county’s Atlantic coast. It was a Saturday, almost ten at night. Finnerty is a manager with Coillte, the state-owned forest management company. He is also an accomplished amateur musician, and he was tired from a late session the previous night at the Cup of Tae traditional music festival, which takes place annually in the small town of Ardara. He spoke to the caretaker for a while, and began making his own phone calls. ‘I arranged for a team of people, people who have helped me in the past, to go out and be available to the fire officer,’ he told me when I met him two months later.
Finnerty had the numbers of forty-five such people in his mobile phone. These were neighbours, friends, local farmers. Because the fire began at a weekend, and because ‘when you call men there’s some at weddings, there are some at funerals, there are some in bed, there are some sick, there are some have a few drinks, there are some at parties’, it took him a while to put together a team of fifteen, including himself. He ate a sandwich and drank a cup of tea, then left his house in Portnoo, about eight miles south-west of Dungloe as the crow flies but twice that on the winding coastal roads, for the Dungloe area, where together with his team and a fire officer he assessed the potential danger of a substantial fire that was moving westwards across gorse and bogland and threatening Glenveagh National Park, the villages of Doochary, Lettermacaward and Dungloe, and a hundred-acre block of Coillte forest.
‘I felt that there was time,’ Finnerty, who is brisk and garrulous, told me. ‘It was travelling on open ground and I felt that at the rate it was burning there would be time to go out in the morning at first light and put out the fire.’ The team agreed to meet at first light, and Finnerty went home. It was 4 a.m. He slept until 5.15, then got up and went out again. For three hours he and his men, armed with fire-beating shovels known as flappers – a broad piece of rubber mounted on a handle – attempted to keep the fire from reaching the forest. They fanned out in groups of five along the fire line, with three members of each group standing at the face of the fire, and the other two behind tramping out any sparks that might have reignited, rotating their positions as the heat became too much for those at the front. The flames were large and intense, but by half past eight on Sunday morning Finnerty and his men had shortened the length of the fire front by about a mile and a half and he was hopeful of saving the forest.

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