July 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Burning questions

By Anthony Ham
A wildlife sanctuary in the Great Sandy Desert is studying how Indigenous fire management can protect biodiversity

Outside Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, which lies in the Great Sandy Desert nearly 350 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, Indigenous rangers pass around boxes of matches. One lights a match, flicks it into a clump of spinifex, then moves on to the next. Some hummocks catch alight, others smoulder, as the rangers fan out across the land. Fires rear briefly and then subside.

Not far away, inside the sanctuary, fire officers from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) follow stricter protocols and have more sophisticated equipment. But they, too, are lighting fires, and they’re lighting them close to the buildings that house Newhaven’s operational headquarters. Everyone is being careful, but no one seems concerned.

The fires won’t catch. It’s too soon after heavy late-summer rains. The land is too green. But they’ll keep trying, because Newhaven is what happens when fires get out of control.

Newhaven ranges across 261,501 arid hectares of Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja land in the Northern Territory, and Indigenous Warlpiri rangers are critical to the sanctuary’s land management systems.

Prior to the 1950s, when Newhaven became a cattle station of sorts, it had no permanent population, although nomadic bands passed through the area on their seasonal peregrinations through country, lighting fires as they went. By the time the non-profit land conservation group AWC took over its management in 2006, very little traditional burning had taken place in more than half a century, and it showed. Massive wildfires in the preceding years laid waste to 80 per cent of Newhaven, in the process hastening the demise of the region’s once-prolific flora and fauna.

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary is a treasure of the inland. Home to a remarkable 23 ecosystems or bio regions, it encompasses within its borders salt lakes and spinifex plains, sand dunes and red-rock desert ranges. It shelters 29 mammal species, 84 different types of reptile, 175 bird species and more than 600 different plant species. Ghost gums grow out of rocky clefts high on the escarpments, and when the wind blows through the desert oaks out here, the sound is like the hiss-roar of a road train passing in the middle distance.

Yet Newhaven is the epicentre of an extinction crisis. Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world: one-third of global mammal extinctions over the past five centuries have occurred here, and many of these have happened in Australia’s arid zone, in places such as Newhaven.

In 2018, AWC inaugurated what was at the time the largest feral predator–free exclosure on Earth, fencing off 9400 hectares at the heart of the reserve. In the years since, it has reintroduced threatened species within the exclosure’s protection, such as the mala, a small wallaby-like marsupial that had been extinct on the mainland since the 1970s. It will reintroduce others, including the burrowing bettong, golden bandicoot, bilby and numbat, over the coming months and years. AWC also has plans for an even more ambitious fenced exclosure, covering nearly 100,000 hectares within Newhaven.

Devastating fires are part of the reason why mammals such as these disappeared from the inland. But fire may also be central to their recovery.

Out here, and perhaps elsewhere, the more good fires you start, the more bad ones you avoid. That’s especially true if you burn at the right time. At Newhaven, that means in the cooler months from April or May to September. A cool-season fire is less intense; it regenerates rather than destroys. And this type of fire can do important work.

Fire as a land management technique in the arid zone has three purposes. The first, says Josef Schofield, AWC’s operations manager at Newhaven from 2007 to 2019, “is to make sure you’re protecting life and assets. Because if you’re dead, you can’t look after the country, and if your operations base burns down, you’ve got nothing to look after the country with.” In Newhaven, the vital assets include the predator-free exclosure. If a fire were to take hold within the fence, the results could be catastrophic.

The second purpose is burning for biodiversity, which means protecting and facilitating the habitat of threatened species. And the third related purpose involves, says Schofield, “trying to prevent broad-scale bushfires from homogenising the landscape”.

The aim with this kind of burning, according to Steve Eldridge, a regional fire expert and leading figure at neighbouring Mount Wedge Station, is to diversify the land in the manner of Indigenous people looking after country.

“When people were living traditionally on the land, they used fire as one of their main tools to stimulate growth, which brought in food – kangaroos, that sort of thing. Because they were such a nomadic nation of people, they were just moving through the landscape constantly, always lighting fires, so you end up with this mosaic of fire ages. A lot of the native flora and fauna adapted to that regime. When there was this mosaic, just that in itself would stop these huge, fast wildfires from establishing. You might get a lightning strike in a place that hasn’t burnt for a while, but it would burn that patch out until it got into an area that had burned more recently, and there wouldn’t be enough fuel for it to carry. That increase in fire intensity and frequency has really had a big impact on native fauna.”

Bad fires wipe out wildlife – as many as two billion animals died in the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires. Diversity is lost and monocultures take over, crowding out other native flora. And without good fires, many animals and plants can’t survive. Or as one of the Warlpiri rangers at Newhaven, Christine Ellis, puts it: “Lighting fires mean healthy country. Animals need fire. Without fire, country gets sick.”

A few hundred kilometres to the west of Newhaven, at the Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in Western Australia, the benefits of burning in this way are obvious. “In a 30-kilometre radius around the community,” says Rachel Paltridge, the Kiwirrkurra IPA coordinator from Desert Support Services, “the fire patterns are still how they were back in the 1950s when everyone was still living out bush. They’re really healthy fire patterns, and that’s mainly from people going out on the weekends, just hunting and burning and keeping those traditions going.” It is no coincidence that Kiwirrkurra IPA is home to some of the most important populations of free-ranging bilbies and great desert skinks in the region.

Understanding fire’s role in the Australian landscape also recognises that rain and fire feed each other. The intensity of bushfires can depend on rainfall patterns in the preceding years. “In the last 45 to 50 years in Central Australia,” Schofield says, “there have been three very high rainfall periods, which means two successive years of well-above-average rainfall. That was the mid 1970s, 2000 to 2001, and then 2010 to 2011. Those high-rainfall periods are always followed by extensive bushfires. All of the work that’s been done on fire management prior to those periods is reset, because there is so much growth after the rains. Eventually it gets to a point where the moisture dries out of all that growth, and it all happens within a few weeks across hundreds or thousands of kilometres. Then the whole landscape becomes flammable all at once.”

AWC has partnered with Charles Darwin University to study how the lessons of Indigenous fire management can be applied beyond the arid zone, where ecosystems and weather patterns are entirely different. “I don’t have the answers, but it is the question to ask,” says John Kanowski, AWC’s chief science officer. “My own view is that Indigenous-type burning is part of the solution. But once you get into the south you get smaller properties and more neighbours.” Unlike in the desert, there’s no margin for error.

Until recently, the focus on controlled burning in more temperate zones has been narrower, aiming for hazard reduction, rather than taking a long-term approach that asks questions about the wider health of the country’s natural and semi-natural areas. “It’s more fuel load reduction rather than eco-health,” says Eldridge. “Eucalypt species are obviously adapted to fire, but in some areas there’s no way we could do it safely.”

And with fire occurring more often in populated areas and with unprecedented intensity, Eldridge says, the consequences of higher temperatures through global warming don’t bear thinking about. “The way fire behaves more recently – it’s scary, really. You see pictures of where those fires went through, and you wouldn’t really expect fires to ravage that sort of country.”

Could Indigenous fire traditions, including knowing when and what to burn, help to prevent devastating bushfires beyond the arid zone? And would a greater commitment to caring for country make a difference? No one yet knows for sure. But it’s surely worth trying.

As one Indigenous elder told Victor Steffensen, author of Fire Country, which argues for the greater use of such practices across Australia, as she watched news of bushfires on the TV: “I don’t know why the country, the houses and the people get burnt, when there are so many people right there to look after the land.”

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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