Wildfire. It's been a potent force in Australia for tens of millions of years. Our forests and woodlands, grasslands and deserts were forged in the flames that periodically razed the landscape after lightning strikes. Their heat cast our ecosystems and the remarkable species that inhabit them.
Indigenous Australians, arriving around 60,000 years ago, soon came to understand the power and price of wildfires. Their complex fire management techniques varied from the tropical woodlands of the Kimberley, across the spinifex grasslands of the central deserts to the cool temperate rainforests of Tasmania. Some ecosystems they burnt regularly, others rarely, to maintain food resources, allow movement, and as part of cultural obligations. It reflected their intimate understanding of country and respect for its many interdependent elements.
Land management has changed significantly since European settlement. Many feral species and weeds have been introduced, clearing for agriculture has accelerated dramatically and the role of controlled burning in land management has gradually diminished.
Fortunately, much of the knowledge of fire management held by Australia’s Traditional Owners has not been lost. Today, it's an increasingly important part of WWF's conservation strategies.
The frequency and extent of large, intense, late-season fires is one of the biggest threats to natural and cultural values across northern Australia. The fires can kill mature trees, rob ecosystems of their vegetation diversity, and reduce food resources for wildlife. The loss of healthy mature woodlands and grasslands has been implicated in the decline of goannas, snakes, seed-eating birds such as the Gouldian finch, and some mammals. Traditional Owners understand the benefits of re-instituting ‘right-way’ fire. Lighting low-intensity fires at the beginning of the dry season has only a patchy impact on understorey vegetation. It creates a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas that reduces the severity of subsequent lightning strike fires. Fire management of the kind practiced for thousands of years by Traditional Owners is a key to the conservation of the north. It’s critical to the future health of these ecosystems and the species that depend on them.
What we're doingWWF-Australia partners with Indigenous ranger groups and government agencies to restore traditional fire regimes across northwest Australia.
Applying fire the right way
WWF works in the central Kimberley with Indigenous rangers and the Kimberley Land Council to help implement ‘right-way’ fire. Fire management activities involve both helicopters and ‘fire walks’, when rangers walk through remote locations burning to protect natural and cultural values, including Gouldian finch habitat.
The importance of finches
We have successfully used remote sensor cameras to attract birds to drink from water points. Identifying Gouldian finch populations in such remote areas will not only support our conservation efforts; it will guide our future burning locations.
Across northern Australia, from Cape York to the Top End and across the Kimberley, the fire management of Traditional Owners has historically helped the north become a stronghold for Australia's unique wildlife. However, the movement of Indigenous people off country and into regional centres in recent decades has seen a decline in traditional fire management and a resulting shift in fire patterns. The mostly small-scale, low-intensity fires managed seasonally by Traditional Owners have been replaced by frequent landscape–scale, intense, ‘hot’ fires that scorch thousands of square kilometres. These fires are often started by lightning strikes in the ‘build-up’ (at the end of the long, dry season and before the wet season) when the landscape is tinder-dry. In the absence of traditional small-scale, ‘cool’ fires, significant fuel loads of dry grass, dead sticks and leaf litter develop. The landscape explodes into flame, many animals become trapped or lose their homes, and the biodiversity impacts are devastating.
Fire in the Asia-Pacific region
Fire is not just an issue for threatened species in Australia, it is also a major driver of species loss across the Asia-Pacific region. ‘Slash and burn’ methods are still used in Asia to clear forested land for other uses, such as to plant crops, as it’s fast and cheap. But the fires can often spread out of control, having major impacts on biodiversity and human health. Much of Southeast Asia is frequently blanketed in thick haze due to forest fires in Indonesia. Large areas of Indonesia’s lowland forests, especially in Sumatra and Borneo, sit on carbon-rich peat swamps, which have been drained over many years for oil palm and pulp plantations. This has left the landscapes dried, degraded, and prone to fire. In 2015, fires destroyed more than 2.6 million hectares across Indonesia. Economic costs are estimated to be more than US$16 billion (double that of the 2004 tsunami), while some 500,000 people suffered respiratory disease. Orangutan are the species most commonly associated with fires in this region, but many others are also left homeless and hurt, including tigers, rhinos and elephants. WWF has been working to protect Asia’s forests for more than 50 years, by helping to establish protected areas, combat illegal logging, promote certification for responsible forest management and restore degraded landscapes.
How you can help
- Support companies using palm oil certified to RSPO standards and buy products carrying the RSPO label.
- Plus, support FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) branded products. The FSC label tells consumers that a timber or paper product is from a well-managed forest.
- Adopt an orangutan and help protect their forest habitat.