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‘Hell on earth’


DENSE Locals trying to put out the gorse fire are barely visible through the smoke in Sáile. Pic: Colm Cafferkey

Edwin McGreal

There has been a call for an emergency plan for gorse fires after a number of houses on Achill Island had a miracle escape last Thursday.
Twenty houses in the village of Sáile were evacuated when a gorse fire which started on Wednesday evening spread dangerously on Thursday afternoon.
One of those homes under threat was Kilbanes. Writing in this week’s Mayo News, Cory Kilbane details vividly his family’s frightening experience.
“When I reached the gate and saw my neighbours emptying out all our photographs and clothes into the front garden, it gave me an indescribable feeling I’ve never felt before and never want to experience again. All I kept telling myself was ‘this is it, we’re gone’. I was sick to the pit of my stomach, it felt like hell on earth,” he wrote.
Fire services with the considerable help of locals just about managed to keep the blaze at bay and no homes caught fire.
But Achill-based Cllr Paul McNamara said lessons have to be learned and an emergency plan is needed for future outbreaks.
“This must be a wake-up call, particularly in an area like Achill where we are surrounded by a lot of commonage and hills and mountains where gorse fires are a huge concern. I will be asking Mayo County Council to put an emergency plan in place for dealing with gorse fires.
“Some protocol needs to be in place that will ensure that there are decision makers on the ground who will make decisions quickly in such situations,” he said.
Cllr McNamara also appealed to people starting such fires to think twice and urged locals to report any suspicious activity to gardaí.
“I would appeal to people who are starting these fires - and it is quite clear that these fires are started deliberately - to look at the devastation their actions have caused. Someone will lose their life and houses will be destroyed if this keeps happening.  “Anyone who sees suspicious activity in areas where a gorse fire has started or could start needs to notify gardaí. It is very important that people are brought to task,” he said.

‘Immediate danger’
Cllr McNamara, who was on the ground in Sáile on Wednesday and Thursday, was part of a team who evacuated 20 houses. Seven of those, he estimates, were in ‘immediate danger of being burned to the ground’.
He is certain that were it not for a ‘phenomenal’ volunteer response locally of some 250 people, there would have been ‘devastation’. The fire was threatening four different areas in Sáile once it crossed from the northern side of Derrowla Hill and locals rushed from one house to another depending on where the need was greatest.
“The Fire Services, Mayo County Council and the Coastguard would not have kept control of that fire without the phenomenal community support.
“The emergency services did all they could but they would not have contained it on their own. If it were not for the people in particular who came from near and far, we would definitely have a different news story today,” he said.
Cory Kilbane expressed the gratitude of the area to those who helped them battle the blaze.
“Personally I would like to thank all the people of the Achill community and surrounding areas who turned out in huge numbers to help save our village and homes and also to the emergency services, without these people it would be a much different and much more tragic story today,” he said.

Read Cory Kilbane’s first person account of the Sáile fire here

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