SCORCHED EARTH An aerial picture of part of the area in Sáile damaged by the gorse fire started by Martin Patten last May. Several houses were at risk during the fire. Pic: Fionn Mangan
Gorse blaze raged for three days, causing evacuations of homes
A 74-year-old Achill man who pleaded guilty to starting a gorse fire that burned for three days and led to the evacuation of up to a dozen homes has escaped a conviction.
Martin Patten of Derrowla, Sáile, Achill pleaded guilty on November 21 last to criminal damage in connection to the burning of gorse in the village of Sáile on May 10, 2017. His sentencing hearing took place in Achill District Court last Thursday.
While the blaze raged, a large number of homes were evacuated and in real danger of being burned. A number of Fire Service units and around 300 local volunteers tackled the fire for up to three days before it was eventually brought under control.
Acres of heather and gorse were destroyed as a result of the fire, impacting on wildlife in the area. Inspector Gary Walsh said in November that were it not for hundreds of locals who battled the fire over the three-day period, the blaze could have had untold consequences.
“God knows what the damage could have been,” he said.
Last Thursday the court heard the total cost in terms of call-outs by groups like the Fire Services, ESB and eir, and damage to property was €38,000, of which the majority, €28,000, was for the Fire Service call-out. However the court was told that none of these groups pursued their claim.
Judge Devins questioned why some people were forced to pay call-out charges for the Fire Services when a big bill like this was waived.
Gareth Bourke told the court that a property owner in Sáile whose property had been damaged by the fire had been compensated by Mr Patten.
At the start of the court, solicitor Gareth Bourke applied for legal aid. He told the court that Mr Patten told him his only source of income was an Irish pension.
However, when Judge Mary Devins asked Mr Patten if he was receiving a pension in the UK as well, having worked there most of his life, Mr Patten said he was, but only ‘half’ a UK pension.
Judge Devins adjourned the case for Mr Patten to speak to his solicitor and when the case resumed, Mr Bourke told the court he was withdrawing the legal aid application.
With regard to a brain injury mentioned at the previous sitting in November, a medical letter was handed into court from 2009. The brain injury was said to have occurred when Mr Patten had an accident and was brought to Achill Sound Surgery in a semi-conscious state before being sent to Mayo General Hospital (now Mayo University Hospital), where he remained for three weeks.
Judge Devins said this letter only gave evidence as to a head injury, not specifically a brain injury, and the doctor in question had little enough contact with Mr Patten in subsequent years to corroborate that he had suffered a brain injury. However, a character witness said he had noticed a change in Mr Patten since that incident.
Tom Cafferkey, an auctioneer and publican from Achill, gave a character statement in court for Mr Patten. He said he has known Martin Patten for 40 years, that Patten came from a family of boat builders and that he had a great love of Achill and for the sea.
He told the court Mr Patten worked in London for many years in construction and that he rose to the position of foreman. He said Mr Patten was ‘a very trusted employee’ and that he ‘always made sure Achill people got work’ and that he was ‘held in very high regard’ for this.
“I don’t know of anyone who has any grudge against him,” added Mr Cafferkey, who said Mr Patten has ‘great local knowledge’, particularly about birds and fish. Mr Cafferkey said he had noticed Mr Patten ‘slow down’ after an accident in 2009 and that he was ‘not as outgoing’ as he used to be.
Judge Devins asked Mr Cafferkey why, ‘if Mr Patten loves Achill so much and all its wildlife’ did he start a fire, and why, when it was raging beyond control, did he pass a garda car on his way home and not tell them what had happened.
Mr Cafferkey said he did not know why, but concluded by saying, ‘There isn’t a bad bone in his body; he wouldn’t do a bad act to anyone’.
Gareth Bourke said his client was trying to light a fire to clear a path to the shore to fish for pollack and did not think the fire would spread.
“It never crossed his mind it would spread like it did. It was extremely unfortunate and totally unforeseen,” said Mr Bourke.
Judge Devins said that while she didn’t think there was any malice, Mr Patten put ‘a lot at risk’.
Mr Bourke went on to say that his client had never been in court before this incident and that he had made a full admission.
Judge Devins said it was notable that various companies and agencies had not sought compensation, saying, ‘Others will have to pay for that in the long run’.
She said that the prosecution had not brought forward any case in relation to any claims by sheep farmers whose commonage was damaged by the fires, and noted that the one private individual who was affected had been compensated.
She said that Mr Patten’s actions on the day in starting the fire and then not stopping to tell the gardaí when it was raging beyond his control were ‘not the bravest’, but added that she believed that he had now ‘met this case fully’.
She said that if Mr Patten paid €500 to both the Achill Lifeboat and the Ballyglass Lifeboat, she would dismiss the charge under the Probation Act.