AWC’s team of fire practitioners and our Dambimangari and Wilinggin Partners in the Kimberley have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that this year’s prescribed burning program is able to proceed, despite the restrictions imposed by the current COVID-19 lockdown in Western Australia.
This is Australia’s largest non-government fire management program. This year, AWC is working with our Wilinggin and Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation Partners to carry out prescribed aerial burning over an area equivalent to the size of Tasmania – about 6.5 million hectares. Even in ordinary years, it is a formidable logistical exercise, but – as it is for all of us – 2020 is posing some unexpected challenges.
Abandoning the prescribed burning program this year was simply not an option. As lockdown measures came into effect in late March, an expert team made up of AWC staff and Wilinggin and Dambimangari Rangers took the decision to isolate, together with all their equipment (including two helicopters) at AWC’s remote Charnley River-Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary and to run the entire operation from a makeshift base at the homestead.
At the time of writing, fourteen staff and Rangers are working on-site as part of this intensive two-month effort. This move to isolate has made it possible for the team to implement vital prescribed burns across the Kimberley without elevating the risk of transmitting coronavirus to staff or local communities.
Strategically, burning the country at this time of year is central to AWC’s conservation land management across northern Australia’s tropical savannas and continues our Partners’ tradition of right-way fire. By reducing fuel loads and breaking up homogeneous patches of older vegetation, prescribed burns in the early dry season substantially reduce the threat of high intensity, large-scale wildfires igniting later in the year.
Historically, large uncontrolled wildfires have been a leading cause for wildlife declines and AWC research has shown that wildfires compound the impacts of feral cats and feral herbivores on native animals.
AWC’s fire management program has halved the extent of wildfire in properties we manage across northern Australia.
Early dry season burns tend to be cooler and burn more patchily than late dry season wildfires. Over 15 years at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, AWC’s ecological survey program has demonstrated that small mammals, seed-eating birds and birds that rely on creek-side vegetation have responded positively to the reduction in wildfires.
By reducing large-scale wildfires, early dry season burning in this way also leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In the central Kimberley alone, AWC’s EcoFire project (comprising prescribed burning on AWC sanctuaries and commercial grazing land), is estimated to avert the emission of up to 75,000 tonnes of CO2e into the atmosphere annually – the equivalent of taking 18,750 cars off the road for a year.
On Charnley River-Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary, the team has already dropped more than 20,000 incendiaries to complete the planned burns.
When the 2020 burning program wraps up later this month, the total distance flown across the Kimberley will amount to around 40,000 kilometres, with a total of 220,000 incendiaries dropped.
The cost of delivering this kind of fire management is substantial, but AWC’s work has confirmed the long-term benefits for biodiversity: small native mammal numbers have increased at Mornington with a reduction in the frequency of late dry season wildfires.
Strategic prescribed burning is one of the most effective land management interventions at our disposal for improving ecological health at a landscape scale. The snap decision by the team to isolate at Charnley River is an example of our shared commitment to protecting the Kimberley’s threatened wildlife and ensuring that this vital work still proceeds.
Thank you for your support, which is enabling AWC’s fire management program in the Kimberley to continue despite the extra costs of delivering the work under COVID-19.
This is also a fitting moment to acknowledge WA-based property group, Hawaiian, who have provided generous financial support for this project as well as in-kind support to our team in the Kimberley.