POLICE are looking for three hillwalkers after precious wildlife and plant habitats were incinerated in the Galloway Hills' biggest fire in decades, writes Stephen Norris.
The fire, which began on Sunday morning was eventually put out on Tuesday afternoon by the combined efforts of helicopter and ground crews.
Around 25 square miles of moorland were destroyed and 500 hectares of forest were badly affected in South Ayrshire around Loch Doon and over into Galloway.
As exhausted firefighting teams trooped off the mountains on Tuesday, investigations into exactly how the fire began were continuing.
The Gazette understands that two people witnessed the fire being started, and reported into the Forestry Commission's Glentrool centre late on Sunday morning that three male hillwalkers, believed to be English, were responsible. The trio had a boxer dog with them.
Police Inspector Stephen Stiff, based at Newton Stewart Police Station said: "We are aware that three people have been identifed with regard to starting this fire, and we are making enquiries to establish their identity.
"As for charges, it will be dependent on whether this was a reckless and intentional act or not.
"We are aware that their are witnesses and we will continue to do everything we can to establish whether this was a deliberate act or not."
Shifting winds constantly changed the direction of the firefronts, making it virtually impossible for firefighters and forestry workers to get on top of the fire, which was eventually put out on Tuesday around 3pm.
Some areas in the mountainous interior were so inaccessible the only way the fire could be tackled was by helicopters dropping water.
Keith Muir of the Forestry Commission was stunned at the
damage caused. He stressed that contrary to some media reports the three men were not camping out, but just out walking.
He said: "With an incident on this scale we just can't turn around and do nothing. We have got to get the message out that this kind of thing can't be allowed to happen."
"The people that came into the visitor centre said that three English hillwakers with a boxer dog started it.
"They were only out walking - what idiot out walking starts a fire?
"We have actually had the folk that came into the Glentrool centre phoning up to say 'what's going out on the radio isn't right - we know exactly who did it'.
"I've notified the police and we'll need to see what they have got, if they have nobody we can't do anything but if they have somebody that's a different matter.
"It's the biggest fire we've had to deal with for many years, but we won't know how big for quite a while.
"It will take us into the middle of next week to get it all sorted out because its burnt out the whole of the Gala Lane right up to Loch Doon, and the whole of the Silver Flowe has gone. The Silver Flowe is a protected biosphere and its been destroyed."
Mr Muir added: "We are working with the police and will support them in any way we can. The more people that can help with this the better and I would ask anyone that has any information to contact the police."
The Silver Flowe, a unique bogland biosphere near Loch Dee is a blackened desert. Entire mountain habitats have been consumed - all the vegetation on Craiglee has gone and the rest of the Dungeon range is badly affected.
The Gazette visited the site on Tuesday once the all clear had been given. On the road over to Glenhead of Glentrool from Loch Dee the line where the fire was halted presents a stark contrast on Craiglee Hill.
The fire burnt its way right over the mountain. On one side the hill is entirely grey-black while on the other, where the firemen made their stand, winter's cover of dead grasses still remain.
The acrid stench of carbonised grass and heather was still in the air at the Gala Lane, the burn which drains the Silver Flowe into the Black Water of Dee near Clatteringshaws Loch.
The lane had acted as a natural firebreak, the green grasses along its banks starving the raging fire of more fuel and preventing it from jumping across to the east bank.
Looking west across to the blaze-blackened masses of Craiglee, Dungeon Hill and Craignaw, the Silver Flowe was a smouldering wasteland, its unique habitat cindered.
Up at Backhill o' Bush bothy, one of the centre of the firefighting operations the last entry in the 'Bothy Book', dated Monday April 16 states: 'The boys from Bravo 61 were at the hill fire and called in to check the rooms out in case we were here for the night. Newton Stewart boys D Kelly, S Dalrymple, Roy McClymont, Jeff Lupton, Colin Bennewith, Neil Whyte.'