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Anger over 'shocking seven-hour delay' in deploying Air Corps to fight wildfires in Donegal

The Air Corps responded in the afternoon but noted that it did not run a dedicated firefighting service.

A picture of Air Corps operations in Kincasslagh.
A picture of Air Corps operations in Kincasslagh.
Image: Twitter/PearseDoherty

THERE HAS BEEN intense criticism from local politicians of a delay in Defence Forces air support to help fire crews and locals battling gorse fires in Donegal. 

Fianna Fáil TD Pat the Cope Gallagher and Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty have both stated that a request for air support was made after 9am yesterday but that it did not arrive in Donegal until about 5pm.

An estimated 100-200 people including firefighters from the Donegal Fire Service and locals were battling the fires in Annagry and Loughanure yesterday. 

There were also 15 fire brigade units from 12 different stations present at the scene. 

The fires have been brought under control and there were no serious injuries but a large area of vegetation was destroyed. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie yesterday morning, local councillor Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig said volunteers were “coming from everywhere” to help fight the fires and he made an appeal for an emergency to be declared. 

An Air Corps helicopter arrived in Donegal in the afternoon to help with the effort but the time it took for the deployment has been criticised.

“It is absolutely shocking the delays which occurred before the Air Corps helicopter arrived on the scene of the gorse fires in west Donegal, the delay in mobilising the helicopter certainly left the entire situation very dangerous, and potentially threatening to numerous properties and indeed life in the areas of the fires,” Gallagher said last night.

A private helicopter was also on site from earlier in the afternoon which was arranged by Donegal County Council. When the Air Corps helicopter did arrive, it played a significant role in controlling the fire. But, the issue here is why it took a full seven hours to get the helicopter cover, which was so badly needed earlier in order to control this raging inferno that threatened property and life in West Donegal.

In a series of tweets, Doherty said there are “serious questions” about the delay. 

The Defence Forces said yesterday afternoon that an AW139 helicopter equipped for fire fighting operations was deployed to the scene and that 36 troops based in Finner Camp deployed to assist with fire fighting operations on the ground.

Asked about the delay in deployment on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Captain Kevin Fitzgerald said the Air Corps does not operate a dedicated firefighting service and the response required mobilising a crew “from all four corners of the country”.

“Firefighting is not the primary task so when we got the tasking we had to mobilise a crew, we don’t really have the resources for a dedicated fire fighting aircraft service. So once the task was approved by the department we just had to mobilise a crew, it came in from all over the country, technicians, pilots and crewmen.”

Our tasking was approved from the department in the afternoon at about 1300 hrs but the morning would have been spent chasing down crews, ringing people, people had to come from all four corners of the country to get the aircraft in the air. Once they had mobilised and come in, the firefighting from the air is a relatively high risk operation, so there’s a lot to prepare, the crews have to be briefed, they have to manage the latent risk involved in something like this, so it isn’t something that can be launched when it’s not a dedicated service.

Fitzgerald also described how the Air Corp is tasked to assist:

We are tasked by the primary tasking agencies in the state, they’ll make an official request to whichever department it is. We’ll come to the Department of Defence who will assess whether or not we have the resources, whether it’s something that we can help out with. And once they do that they’ll task it out to Air Corp headquarters.

Also speaking on Morning Ireland, Gary Martin of Donegal Co Council said it was “very fortunate” there were no serious injuries from the fires and that there was only minimal damage to property. 

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“There was a huge community response, I couldn’t thank the local community more for their help, both in fighting the fires and supporting our crews,” Martin said. 

In a post on Facebook yesterday, Donegal County Council said there remains a high fire risk in the area.

“Donegal County Council appeals to landowners and members of the public to exercise caution and to take all necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of wildfires involving material such as gorse, heather and similar,” the council said.

“Land owners and members of the public are urged to be vigilant and to report any uncontrolled or unattended fires immediately to the Fire Service by dialling 999 or 112.”

“The Council is also urging landowners and members of the public not to engage in activities that could cause wildfires.”

“Donegal County Council would also like to remind landowners and members of the public that under the Wildlife Act 1976 and the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 it is an offence to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated between 1st day of March and 31st day of August in any year.”

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Rónán Duffy

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