Hikers in East Clare have been dealt a huge blow following the closure of the 12 O’Clock Hills Trails following a very significant forest fire on the Upper Hills on Thursday evening.
Two residents were evacuated from their homes as a precaution on Thursday night after 8pm.
This popular walking and hiking amenity is now closed until Monday due to health and safety concerns after claims the forest fires may have been started maliciously or as a result of carelessness.
It is expected the 12 O’Clock Hills committee may make a further announcement pending an inspection on Friday night.
Firefighters from Shannon Fire Station, Killaloe Fire Station and a Limerick City Fire Station battled the blaze on Thursday evening.
It is understood Shannon Fire Station was alerted about the fire at 5.3opm and Killaloe Fire Station was tasked at around 8.55pm.
The overall response involved three fire applicances and three fire vans. Personnel included four firefighters and station officer from Shannon Fire Service, four from Killaloe with an officer and firefighters from a Limerick City brigade.
The fire was still smouldering on the hills on Friday morning as a helicopter hired by Coillte sprayed water to keep it from spreading.
Four volunteers from the 12 O’Clock Hills Trails Committee and local land owners helped fire fighters on Thursday night.
Coilltee Estate Manager, Declan Garvey confirmed the company are liaising with Gardai concerning alleged suspicious activity in the forest on Thursday afternoon.
Mr Garvey confirmed Executive Helicopters, employed by Coillte started applying water on hotpots in different terrain with a bambi bucket, starting at 6am. This bambi bucket can hold 1,500 litres and up to ten loads can be deposited in an hour from the El-xha helicopter.
In view of the treacherous conditions for gorse fires during periods of hot dry weather, he outlined Coillte personnel are being deployed at ten sites throughout the country.
He urged people to be vigilant during hot weather when they are using any inflammable substance for something like a barbecue as a gorse fire can ignite very quickly during dry weather.
He thanked all the support from the local committee, residents and landowners during the fire operation.
Access to the Belvoir car park was blocked by Coillte on Friday for safety reasons.
Members of Sixmilebridge and Shannon Gardaí were on site to assist the fire response on Thursday night, while senior officers from Killaloe Garda Station were due to consult with Coillte personnel on site on Friday.
The Great East Clare Hill Challenge in memory of the late Síle Corish, who was a committee members for years, will take place on July 8.
A tree planting ceremony will take place on the hills to remember Síle following the event.
All the proceeds from the 30 kilometre hike will benefit Breakthrough Cancer Research.
Speaking to the Clare Champion, Committee chairman, Patsy Neville said the fire broke out some time after 5pm following some suspicious activity relating to the alleged burning of cable to extract copper.
He recalled there were about 30 cars in the car park when the fire broke out but walkers quickly turned back when they realised what was happening.
He said two residents were also evacuated as a precaution for a period last night even though they were not in any immediate danger.
The Clare Champion understands these residents will be allowed back in their dwellings by the Clare Fire and Rescue Service when it is considered safe to do so.
The 12 O’Clock Hills are part of the Slieve Bearnagh Mountain Range in East Clare. Located in a line of hills stretching to the southwest from Broadford, the main peak Knockanuarha is five kilometres to the southeast of Kilkishen Village.
This peak is 1,014 feet high and it is marked by an Ordnance Survey Triangulation Pillar and laterally a compass/sundial. Knockanuarha has a twin which is 400 metres to the west-south-west and about 10 metres lower.
It is thought that the name 12 O’Clock Hills comes from the local tradition of telling the time by noting the position of the sun against these peaks.
On a clear day all the high mountains of Munster can be seen as well as mountains in Connemara. Quite often the Shannon Estuary can be observed as well as Ennis town, Kilkishen and many of the villages of East Clare with West Clare and the Burren in the background.
In September 2014, the 12 O’Clock Hills Looped Walks facility was opened.
There is a natural tapestry of lakes, bog and woodland dotted here and there along the trails with the ruins of ancient castles. Many of the places of interest can be identified using the compass/sundial at the top.
In 2011, in tandem with the restoration of the old Protestant Church in Kilkishen, the potential of these hills to provide a scenic recreational and fitness facility with a local history dimension was recognised. A committed voluntary committee was formed with considerable support from Coillte and local landowners was and is much appreciated. Trails were developed and refurbished. Ruins of houses were found and pathways to them were resurfaced. Information boards were provided to celebrate their value as heritage sites remembering the hill farmers who lived here until the 1970s.