Arsonists blamed for gorse fires that sparked a major alert in the Mourne Mountains should face jail, it has been claimed.
The police and fire service in the North have warned hill walkers and holiday-makers to avoid the area over the coming days as they tackle a string of blazes.
Firefighters reported seeing 40ft high flames at the height of the emergency. They fear that as they bring the fires under control, they could spread again.
While there are no reports of injuries, the emergency services warned the public to avoid walking or camping in the famous mountain range that runs along the Co Down coast.
But after officials said they believed some of the fires were set deliberately, there was a call for the authorities to come down hard on offenders.
DUP South Down Assembly candidate Jim Wells said he visited fire-and-rescue and ambulance staff dealing with the large gorse fire and said anyone found guilty of arson should face a custodial sentence.
“I understand that seven fire tenders and numerous ambulance and rescue vehicles have been deployed to fight the large moorland fire on Slieve Binnian,” he said.
“A very large area of commercial forestry has been destroyed and huge damage done to our wildlife habitat. One fortunate hill walker had a lucky escape and there is a concern that the fire will spread to properties in the area.
“Recent information provided by the Health and Public Safety Minister has confirmed that the vast majority of gorse fires are started deliberately, costing taxpayers millions of pounds every year.
“They also tie up the fire & rescue service, leaving other areas without essential cover. I also understand that fire service personnel had to be brought from as far away as Belfast and Newtownhamilton to deal with the blaze.”
He said fire service staff from the nearby Newcastle station have dealt with 120 fire call-outs in the last week.
Mr Wells added: “This problem has increased significantly in recent years and action must be taken to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation. Those convicted of this type of arson must receive custodial sentences.”
Police and the fire service warned that the warm weather and high winds added to the unpredictability of the direction the gorse fires might take.
A number of roads have been closed as firefighters battle to contain the blazes.
Chief Fire Officer Peter Craig told the BBC that the fires included 40ft high flames and he warned that the blazes could spread faster than people could run.
He said of the arsonists: “The key issue is they need to know their actions have consequences. People out in the mountains enjoying the day are coming down facing a ferocious fire. One moment of what they consider fun could end in a tragedy.
“Somebody could lose their life.”