An alarming phone call last Saturday at 4am began a five-day battle against a raging fire for Seamus Hassett, ecologist and regional manager of Killarney National Park.
Herculean efforts by Mr Hassett, his team, the fire service, the Air Corps, and many volunteers followed for the next 90-plus hours as they worked to quench the flames burning through the oldest national park in Ireland.
Fire began to rip through the Unesco biosphere reserve from Friday night, slashing deep, black scars across the ancient park with its wild red deer population that has a lineage stretching back to neolithic times.
Parts of the park were still softly smouldering on Thursday. Peat bogs were burning below the ground, releasing once trapped carbon and potentially damaging a delicate and complex ecosystem so thoroughly that it may never again be what it was just eight days ago.
By the end of the week, Mr Hassett was working with gardaí to determine the cause and seat of the fire, examining blackened heath and woodland and still smouldering earth.
“We’re still working with the Garda technical bureau, their investigations are on site again today,” Mr Hassett said. “We can’t determine what started it at the moment.
“We can’t say it’s malicious, it may have been an accident, but it’s unlikely to be a natural event.”
The damage is extensive with at least 23sq km either partly or wholly burned.
Although Mr Hasset and his team are still surveying and assessing the damage, he said it may take 15-20 years for the park to fully recover.
“Conservatively, the figures quoted of 2,500 to 3,000 hectares [of fire damage] is not far off at the moment, but that includes some private land and the park,” he said.
“But it is still too early to know the full extent of the damage.”
A range of habitats have been impacted, including wet heath, dry heath, alpine boreal heath, blanket bog, and oak woodlands, he said.
The lakes and waterways will also be impacted.
“A fire of this scale is going to lead to run-off and the burned ash will lead to a carbon spike in water,” he said.
“From an ecological perspective, we have the freshwater pearl mussel, the longest living mollusc, the longest living animal in Ireland, they can live up to 120 years.
“They demand the highest water quality and anything that would have an impact on that quality would have an impact on the species that are sensitive to water chemistry. The fire is more than terrestrial. People look at it now and the scar is visually striking but the longer-term impact is going to be very hard to assess in the initial stages.
“You’re in the middle of the bird nesting season. So it’s going to have an impact on the likes of snow chaffs, meadow pips, skylarks, potentially merlins.
“There’s a huge amount of survey work to be done which is very time-consuming, you need boots on the ground. We’ll start looking at the likes of the invertebrates in the next few weeks. Bugs, beetles, particularly in certain habitats, can be key indicator species, they can tell you about the health of the system.
“We have found from previously burned sites, that the species composition, particularly on the peatland, the heather species take so much longer to recover. And deep fire, bad fire, may need to recover from seed which can take up to six years to get any type of growth.
“So the longer-term impacts we’ll monitor scientifically, but the recovery will depend on the severity of the damage of the fire, how quickly it went through and what temperature it burned.
SOURCE: Irish Examiner