Traditional methods are making a difference in the Kimberley, where an innovative partnership has introduced right-way fire management

Wunambal Gaambera Country (Uunguu Coast) in the remote Western Australia Kimberley region is home to rare animals and world-famous tourist destinations. But this irreplaceable ecosystem has proven vulnerable to the ferocity of late dry season wildfires that have left the country damaged and threatened the plants and animals found only in this area.

Over the past 10 years, a traditional method known as right-way fire management has been making a difference, and has significantly reduced the wildfires that threaten the delicate balance of Wunambal Gaambera.

In the decade that Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation has partnered with Bush Heritage Australia, less than 10% of Country has burnt, dramatically less than the figure of 26% in the decade before.

“Burning is good for the animals”

Jeremy Kowan, Traditional Owner and Uunguu ranger

The partnership has resulted in the Healthy Country Plan, where Wunambal Gaambera people identified 10 crucial targets in keeping Country healthy. One of these was the practice of right-way fire management.

Right-way fire management involves a combination of traditional and modern ground and aerial burning techniques in the cooler season. Limited patches of Country are burnt early in the dry season to prevent wildfires.

Traditional Owner and Uunguu ranger Jeremy Kowan said patch-burning on Country was a benefit to native animals.

Read also: Ngalurrtju partnership to protect more than 300,000 hectares in Central Australia

“Burning is good for the animals,” Kowan said. “One big area will be cleaned up by fire and we start to see that new growth and animals come back to that area to eat the new vegetation. They [the animals] can get away, they don’t get blocked by the fire. Just by looking at animals, like emu and kangaroos, if they are strong and healthy we know the Country is healthy.”

Kowan said right-way fire management on Country also stimulated bush foods and protected cultural sites.

“We burn around the art sites to keep the grass lower…. Fire can destroy art sites, crack all the painting in the rocks.”

Jeremy Kowan, Traditional Owner and Uunguu ranger

“We burn slow, slow, slow to stop all that hot fire rushing, so it burns all over the countryside,” he said. “We burn around the art sites to keep the grass lower…. Fire can destroy art sites, crack all the painting in the rocks.”

This year’s fire season on Wunambal Gaambera Country ended on 30 June.

Wunambal Gaambera manages a 2.5 million hectares of graa (land) and wundaagu (saltwater) native title estate.

Some 343,700 hectares within the native title estate is a declared Indigenous Protected Area, home to vulnerable animals such as wulumara (longneck turtle), yilangal (scaly tail possum) and monjon, the world’s smallest rock wallaby. The Country also includes some of the most remote tourist destinations in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, including Punamii-Uunpuu (Mitchell Falls) and Munurru (King Edward River).

Mitchell plateau, wulo aerial burning. Credit: RWF

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