Fire is one of the most important tools we have for looking after country. In the past, as people moved through their clan estates they would burn the grass early in the dry season as they walked. These small-scale, cool fires created a pattern of burnt and unburnt country across the landscape. In some places, people would keep patches of grass until later in the year so that groups could come together and use fire for hunting and gathering – a fire drive. In other areas, cool fires would be lit around important places like rock art and burial sites or rainforest patches to protect them from hot fire. Sometimes, fire would also be used to ‘clean up’, so that country was easier to walk through and new grass would grow for animals like wallabies to browse on.
When people started to move off their country and into Maningrida about 60 years ago, the fire story got much worse. Little burning was done in the early dry season and big hot fires started to spread across the landscape. It is not traditionally in our culture to fight fire and these big fires were really hard to contain. Recent research has shown that these hot fires have been a key factor in the decline of lots of plant and animal species across northern Australia. Landowners in our region have seen changes in emu and kangaroo numbers as well as fire-sensitive plants such as nga-na-ngórrdjeya, the timber tree (Callitris intratropica).
We have been working really hard for over 10 years to reinstate healthy fire in our Bawinanga region. We work closely with landowners and djungkay to plan and conduct broad-scale burning in the early dry season. And since 2006, we have been a key partner in the innovative West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA), which was developed to reduce the frequency of unhealthy savanna wildfires. By doing good early dry season burning we are able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a carbon abatement, which we trade through the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund to generate income for our land management activities.
Our goal for healthy fires is to foster the transfer of cultural knowledge of fire regimes and increase opportunities for landowners and djungkay to sustainably manage their country for fire.
The main threats to healthy fires are:
Together with landowners and djungkay, we check how effective our threat mitigation activities are by measuring the:
- Area of early and late dry season fires;
- Pattern of fires;
- Presence of key bushtucker; and
- Sharing of cultural fire knowledge and practices.