Record of my work experience with Exmoor National Park

Work experience 13-03-2014

Today we went Swailing out near Oare. This involves controlled burning of heather or gorse to encourage regeneration and maintain the heather and gorse habitat on the moor.

We drove up onto the section of moor we would be working on with a tractor to pull the bowser full of water that would be used to control the fire.

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Once on site we went over the risk assessment for the activity and ensured everyone was clear on emergency procedures. The fire service is notified that swailing is being carried out so that if a fire gets out of control they can be called in quickly and know which area to head for.

We covered all the safety procedures for the burners, dealing with fires that “jump” and where the fire breaks were.

Vehicles were parked well away from the areas to be swailed.

We then used a tablet computer with GPS capability to drive round the areas to be swailed, this was a very useful activity as it made sure everyone was aware which areas were being burned and where the fire needed to be controlled.

It was important to check wind direction to ensure the fire would spread in the direction required, but not spread to other areas and could be controlled once lit.

It is also important to be aware of “back burning” which is where heater will burn against the wind and needs to be put out, this is usually at the burning line where the heater is lit.

The bowser is used with a jet washer hose and petrol powered pump to douse the flames at the lighting line once the fire is underway. This prevents the “back burning” and ensures a neat edge to the swailed area.

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The bowser is attached to a land rover and pulled along with two people operating the jet washer to douse the flames, one using the hose and the other carrying the spare length to ensure it doesn’t become entangled in the heater, some of which is quite long.

The GPS ensures that no more than 10 hectares is burnt as this is the limit imposed on swailing currently.

The area of heather to be burnt
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The burners are a lance attached to a hose and gas bottle, this has a trigger valve that controls the flow of gas to the end of the lance and is dragged slowly along the edge of the heater to light it in a line that ensures a clean burn.

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Fire retardant suits and gloves are worn, as well as safety helmets with face guards to protect against the heat of the fires.

The fire takes hold quickly and burns in the direction of the wind, towards to fire breaks

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The scenery was also quite spectacular up on this part of the moor

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After careful instruction I was able to try some lighting using the gas cylinder back pack and lance

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Once the fire has had a chance to get hold, the bowser is brought in to douse the flames along the line where the fire was lit, this ensures the fire does not get out of control or “back burn” in an undesirable location.

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Fire beaters are also employed to put out any smouldering sections that have been doused with water and great care is taken to ensure all fire is out on the lighting line. Two people with beaters walk down following the bowser to ensure that the fire is completely out.

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This is monitored carefully for the entire period the burn is taking place to ensure fire does not spread where it is not wanted.

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The burn is reasonably quick and soon the area is cooling with just the odd whisp of smoke

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Sometimes the burn has to be encouraged over areas that are not well covered with heather

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We then moved to the second section for burning that day and repeated the procedure

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The kawasaki Mule was very useful for running up and down the lighting line checking the fire had not spread to incorrect areas

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Once swailed the areas will naturally regenerate with fresh young growth. The moorland ponies will move in very quickly to these areas once they have gone out and graze the grasses and heathers also providing much needed fertilizer.

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The area in the foregound of this picture was swailed the previous year and you can see the green growth of young heater making its way back in. The National Park has retained an ecologist to visit and asses areas that have been swailed over the past 5-6 years to gain scientific evidence of the benefits of swailing and the ecological returns that are gained by the process.

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Swailing is carried out at this time of year because the ground nesting birds have not yet built their nests and therefore there will be little impact to them.

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The third burn was more of the same, the area was checked using the GPS and the Mule to inspect the edges and ensure the natural fire breaks in the terrain would stop the fire where required.

This shot shows the burned area we had done that morning

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The third burn of the day

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You can see the clear line where the burn has been controlled using the bowser and beaters to ensure only the specified area is burned.

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The final burn of the day required preparation as there was a boundary we did not want the fire to cross. This meant walking up the length of the boundary with the bowser, dousing everything with water prior to lighting. This would ensure the fire did not cross the boundary. Careful vigilance after this along the length of the boundary ensured the fire did not spread to an undesired location.

Lighting was then carried out and the bowser was used to control the direction of the flames.

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The fire was then put out at the lighting line as before and beaters followed along to ensure all flames were out

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The final burned area

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The final job was to stay until all flames were out and then to call the fire service and ensure they were aware of the areas that had been burned and how the land had been left. This is important as fires can flare up again and if they are aware they can respond accordingly if required.

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