Clockwise from main: the steep side of Slieve Lamagan in the Mourne Mountains, Co Down, burns; the scene outside Annalong, Co Down, as gorse fires rage; and exhausted firemen take a well-deserved break. Mark Pearce
ARSONISTS are suspected of being behind some of the devastating fires that ripped through the west of Ireland over the weekend.
The army was drafted in to help exhausted firefighters battle dozens of bog, forest and gorse fires that erupted in parts of Donegal, Galway and Mayo.
Several houses had to be evacuated in some of the worst-affected areas of Donegal, where more than 100 firefighters spent 24 hours struggling to contain up to 35 separate blazes.
Defence forces personnel were deployed to the largest blaze in west Donegal. Two helicopters dumped tons of water from a local lake to dampen the blaze close to Dungloe while farmers assisted with tankers on the ground.
Two-thirds of the county's fire tenders responded to separate blazes at the Knather, outside Ballyshannon, in Dungloe and at Glenvar, near Milford, where the civil defence was also drafted in to assist.
Ten units of the fire service remained on location yesterday evening, fighting the worst fire in living memory in west Donegal.
Several houses were evacuated on the outskirts of Dungloe and roads around Lettermacaward were closed to all but emergency vehicles.
That fire, which broke out early Saturday evening, was fanned by westerly winds, and spread rapidly across vast tracts of gorse and bogland and heavily populated rural areas from Glenveagh National Park to Lettermacaward, Doochary and into Dungloe.
The flames were so large they leaped across the road as the fire headed westward, destroying fences and forestry and leaving millions of euro worth of damage in its wake.
At around 5am, two further fires close to the village of Doochary -- more than six miles apart -- are believed to have been started deliberately.
"These fires did not start on their own. They gave our men great difficulty because they had to go back on an area they had already finished," Donegal's chief fire officer Bobby McMenamin told the Irish Independent.
He requested assistance from the army as fires in west Donegal and in Glenvar, north of Milford, in north-east Donegal continued to rage.
"We received assistance from the civil defence for the fire in Glenvar, but we had to ask the army to come in as our men are getting fatigued now," Mr McMenamin said.
The service had received 90 emergency calls from the public since the crisis began at noon on Saturday.
"This is the worst we have seen in a long time. It has been made worse by the westerly winds and the fact that it follows a harsh winter where vegetation has been severely damaged," Mr McMenamin added.
"I am asking people not to be careless lighting fires where they shouldn't light them."
MEP Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher last night called for an emergency response plan where the defence forces could immediately respond to calls for assistance from fire chiefs in the future. "Time was of the essence but there was too much red tape to cut through and west Donegal was burning," he said.
Meanwhile, firefighters and forestry workers battled a number of serious bog and forest fires in Galway and Mayo.
One of the most serious of the fires damaged 2.5 square miles of bog and forestry between Pontoon and Castlebar in Co Mayo. Coillte deployed a helicopter to help ground fire teams battle the blaze. The fire, which began on Saturday, threatened houses for a time as well as high voltage power cables.
Across the border, the PSNI has warned the public against walking in the Mourne Mountains in Co Down over the next few days because of the danger from gorse fires.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter last night praised the "heroic" efforts of those fighting the fires.