I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river. His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire. Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn. The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.
Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home. It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.
Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none. But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked. The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth. What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering. Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.
Controlled Burn. Prescribed Burn. Hazard Reduction Burning. Backfire. Anglo Saxons called it Swælan. Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries. Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish. Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.
On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires. The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.
Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn. But we suspect it might not have been. The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day. Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day. Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette? We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us. A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames. The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.
As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done. The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed. The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened. Roger and I sat down to do the same. The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.
Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day. I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.
Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track. We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn. After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern. This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches. Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen. Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.
With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house. I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control. Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.