Radical fire plan for the Kimberley

By Victoria Laurie 12 August 2010
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Land managers, Aboriginal rangers and pastoralists are coming together to improve fire management techniques in the Kimberley.

Fire regimes in the Kimberley region of WA are undergoing radical change, as land managers, Aboriginal rangers and pastoralists seek to reduce the devastating impact of intense, uncontrolled bush fires.

Smoke plumes are a common sight in the Dry season between May and October, and about one third of the entire 425,000 sq km area of the Kimberley typically goes up in flames each year.

Ed Hatherley, regional fire coordinator with the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) says successive hot fires can reduce landscapes to bare scorched earth, leaving little refuge or food. “It’s important to preserve the heritage values of the Kimberley by protecting fauna and flora against over-burning,” he says.

It’s also important to the multi-million dollar tourist industry, where visitors can be dismayed by fire-ravaged landscapes from the Dampier Peninsula around Broome to Purnululu National Park in the east Kimberley. “Some tourists don’t understand that a given proportion of country will burn every year, regardless of our intervention,” says Ed.

A patchy solution

However, new methods of controlled burning, which have been put in place over the last few years, are already yielding “encouraging” results, Ed says, with fewer large bushfires recorded since the Dry season began in May this year.

Kimberley fire planners are now abandoning linear fire breaks and are replacing them with many ‘scar-like’ patchwork burns across entire landscapes. DEC staff and Aboriginal community rangers also use helicopters to drop incendiary devices in selected areas. “We monitor fire scars and the biggest win for us is that we’re seeing a reduction in overall fire size,” says Ed, as well as thriving communities of vegetation of mixed ages.

Before 2009, the Prince Regent area had been almost entirely burned every second year, threatening rare mammals and unique plants. This year, since the introduction of the new patch method, the vegetation in that area is growing back.

Accessibility issues

Fires are difficult to manage in the Kimberley because of the vastness of the landscape, the inaccessible terrain and the highly fire-prone vegetatio, Ed says. “Down in southern Australia, fires are often put out with bulldozers but you can’t get machinery into a lot of Kimberley sandstone country.”  

Similar fire-control strategies are being conducted by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and pastoralists in the central Kimberley. In another part of the Kimberley, ‘EcoFire’ – the largest non-government fire management project in Australia – has completed 23,000 km of helicopter runs and launched 50,000 aerial incendiaries in a bid to control damaging fires. A partnership between the AWC and local pastoralists, EcoFire concentrates on the central Kimberley where iconic species like the Gouldian finch have been badly affected by fire.

According to Atticus Fleming, AWC’s chief executive, it has “demonstrated dramatic success in increasing the patchiness of burning. It provides new hope for fire-sensitive species like the Gouldians and reduces the extent of damaging fires”.