Flying high

Tuesday 21 September, 2010

The sound of helicopter blades cutting the air above Yourka Reserve hails a new approach to the reserve’s fire management strategy.

The helicopter prepares for take-offThe helicopter prepares for take-off. Photo: Paul Hales

It's a moment of nervous anticipation as Reserve Manager Paul Hales navigates the chopper pilot across Yourka Reserve.

The property's northern border stretches out 150 metres below. Paul checks the map and gives a quick nod in the direction of the back seat.

An operator feeds an odd-looking device with what looks like ping pong balls.

But these are no ordinary ping pong balls. Packed with flammable gel they fly out the chopper window, landing moments later among the grassy woodlands below, where they soon smoke and ignite.

For Paul – and for Bush Heritage – today is an exciting day. Yourka is the first Bush Heritage property to use the technique of controlled burning by helicopter. The technique, well-established in Australian land management practice, is perfect for the savannah woodlands and steep inaccessible hills of Yourka.

The problem: how to deal with Yourka

Peter and Emma AshtonYourka from the air. Photo: Paul Hales

'Yourka is perhaps the most rugged property that Bush Heritage owns,' says Paul.

'Her hills and ridges make it tricky to get around and do prescribed burning by foot. There's also no vehicle access to a lot of places so the chopper gives us the ability to get to those areas.'

This inaccessibility, combined with the rapid build-up of fuel in Yourka's tropical savannah woodlands means Paul and his team need to burn frequently and early in the dry season.

Bring in a helicopter and effective, broadscale prescribed burning becomes achievable.

'The scale and quality of this burning would have taken months to do on foot,' says Paul. 'It would involve creating and maintaining roads and walking many kilometres of very rugged country,' he says. 'Whereas with the chopper, we covered over 16 000 hectares in just under three hours.'

Paul has spent the best part of three weeks preparing for today. He has covered kilometres of countryside, on quad-bike and on foot, strengthening the firebreaks around the reserve.

Ecologists examine burned countryEcologists Murray Haseler and Paul Williams examine the results of the burns. Photo: Paul Hales

The ecology of burning

Bush Heritage Ecologist Murray Haseler and local fire ecology expert Paul Williams are also key pieces in the puzzle.

They have spent weeks studying Yourka's vegetation to determine how best to manage fire in the landscape, and to set goals for burns and monitor their success.

At $1300 per hour, helicopters don't come cheaply, but they pay for themselves quickly. As well as being cost-effective, Paul says burning by helicopter achieves a better burn.

'The key is to break the country up,' says Paul. 'What you want is a mosaic burn, so that from the air, the countryside looks like a patchwork. It's so much easier with the chopper.'

Steve Heggie, Bush Heritage Regional Manager, has also been crucial to fire management on Yourka and other reserves in Northern Australia.

'We've come a long way in a short time,' says Steve. 'A lot of people have put in the hard yards over many years to develop a strong reserve management approach. We have skilled staff and the organisational confidence to pull off a program like this. Our supporters should feel proud'.

As the pilot points the chopper's nose homeward, Paul scans the horizon, triple-checking the firebreaks have held. It's a cold and blustery day, but Yourka still looks beautiful.

Since Bush Heritage supporters pitched in to buy the property in 2007, this is the first time Paul has seen Yourka from the air.

But with their continued support, he'll be in the air again next year, perhaps with another reserve manager in the back seat, showing them how it's done.

What about the animals?

Fire management is an integral part of protecting species on Yourka Reserve. Although plants and animals are well adapted to survive bushfires, controlled burning minimises the likelihood and impact of extensive and hot wildfires. Such wildfires leave few refuges for native animals like Yourka's gliders and rock-wallabies.

In contrast, controlled, seasonal burning provides refuge for native species if wildfires do occur in years to come. The patchier the burn, the more refuges are left for animals to take cover.

Controlled burns help to germinate particular plant species, and also result in areas of vibrant, palatable groundcover for ground-feeding animals like bettongs, wallabies and bandicoots.

By Bron Willis

Yourka Reserve was purchased for the purpose of nature conservation with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy's David Thomas Challenge; Ian and Nan Landon-Smith; and the Australian Government under the Maintaining Australia's Biodiversity Hotspots Programme.

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