2 June 2020
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE IN THE KIMBERLEY
Fighting fire with fire in the Kimberley
For thousands of years Aboriginal people in the Kimberley have been looking after country and undertaking traditional burning practices.
Fire was used to:
- Make access easier through thick and prickly vegetation
- Maintain a pattern of vegetation to encourage new growth and attract game for hunting
- Encourage the development of useful food plants, for cooking, warmth, signalling and spiritual reasons
Traditional burning created a mosaic like pattern through the landscape of different ages of vegetation. If a fire started naturally (such as a lightning strike) fire would have trickled through the landscape and not all would be lost in a hot fire.
In recent times with colonisation and most Aboriginal people being removed from traditional lands, traditional burning largely ceased to take place. This led to the emergence of large, uncontrolled wildfires, usually occurring late in the dry season.
The Kimberley can be broken down into many seasons however there are two main seasons, the wet and the dry. In the wet season the Kimberley experiences humid, monsoonal weather. The dry season is long and hot. The worst time for wildfires to happen is late in the dry season. This is when vegetation on country is dry and winds start to pick up.
Wildfires in the Kimberley occur every year and this is part of life living up here. Long dry seasons combined with flammable vegetation make a deadly mix. Ignition of fires can occur naturally from lightning strikes when storms start to build at the start of the wet or from human causes such as campfires, cigarette butts, machinery.
In the past, using only western approaches to fire management have been ineffective in the Kimberley. We are now seeing a re-emergence of traditional burning practises across the whole of Northern Australia.
Traditional burning practises involve lighting fires throughout the landscape at the right time of year. These fires burn cooler and avoid wildfires travelling through later in the year. These cool burns are normally done between March and June after the wet season when there is still green vegetation around.
Cool fires burn slowly, reducing fuel loads and creating fire breaks. Not all the area is burnt, with the result a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country. This creates a similar landscape to when Kimberley Aboriginal People walked the country and burnt as they went for hunting, ceremony and other cultural purposes.
Early season burning removes fuel loads for larger fires that could occur late in the dry season. This way of burning protects people, habitat for biodiversity, protects cultural sites and infrastructure.
Ranger groups in the Kimberley are now combining traditional burning practises with modern technology. Rangers utilise helicopters and aerial incendiary machines to carry out aerial burns. They also participate in ground burning from tracks and roads, creeks and doing fire walks. Ranger groups talk about ‘Right-Way Fire’ to emphasise burning undertaken by Traditional Owners using Traditional Knowledge.
Wildfire mitigation through early season burning in the Kimberley is everyone’s responsibility. Many people work together to protect the region. This includes Indigenous Rangers and Traditional Owners, Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions, local councils and shires, pastoralists and other private land holders.
KIMBERLEY SEASONS TIMELINE
WET SEASON (Jan - Mar (Late wet))
- Storms start to slow down
- Rain ceases
- Hot and humid
- Occasional heavy downpours and flooding
- Rivers are flowing
- Vegetation is green
DRY SEASON (Apr - Jun (Early dry))
- Cooler and dryer days
- Clear skies
- Cool nights
- Easterly winds
- Early season burning begins before vegetation dries out too much
DRY SEASON (Sep - Nov (Late dry))
- Dry and hot days
- Clear skies
- Vegetation dries up
- Dusty roads
- Very late dry winds pick up making this wildfire season
WET SEASON (Nov - Dec (Build up season))
- High temperatures
- Extremely humid
With thanks to Kimberley Land Council and Lotterywest.