Tiger Hill stands like a sentry on the southern boundary of Yourka Reserve. From the Yourka lookout, Tiger Hill dominates the far horizon. We love to point it out to visitors (over sundown drinks and nibbles) to show the extent of country now protected and managed for conservation. It's literally as far as the eye can see.
It’s home to some interesting fauna and flora like the lovable Mareeba Rock Wallabies, aromatic mango bark and glossy, gnarled umbrella trees (a coloniser from the neighbouring Wet Tropics rainforest). Towering boulders, secretive overhangs and crystal-clear streams all add to the charm of Yourka’s southern sentinel.
On the 14th of December last year a lightning strike hit the eastern foothills of Tiger Hill and sent a blaze that ripped east-west across the Reserve.
Bare-earth breaks and creek beds were no match for heatwave temperatures and blustery conditions and the wind-driven fire front roared across the tinder dry landscape to the Herbert River on our western boundary.
What followed was weeks of managed back burns, blacking out and endless patrolling to hold the wildfire within the blocks it had ignited and to save as many of our large, hollow-bearing trees as we could. Long, hard days and anxious nights, supported by Bush Heritage staff, neighbours, contractors and the local Rural Fire brigades all finally came to an end when the long-overdue wet season arrived towards the end of January.
Far North Queensland is no stranger to hot fires. Grassy, open woodlands build up large fuel loads over the wet months of the year, which dry and cure during Winter. Regular cyclones also contribute heavier fuel and fallen trees become an issue as they can keep burning for weeks once lit up.
Dry storms are also a common occurrence during the build up to the Wet but not all of them result in a fire. In eleven years of reserve management at Yourka, this was our first major bushfire started by a lightning strike.
While we know that far north animals and plant communities have always lived with fire in the landscape, it was hard not to worry about the impacts on our native fauna. Throughout the bushfire, we were heartened to see much wildlife on the move. Bettongs, bandicoots, Agile Wallabies and Eastern Greys hopped in and out of the black and Lace Monitors darted across the wheel tracks ahead of us. We even managed to spot a melomys in the headlights one night, on patrol. That was an exciting new addition to the species list!
Nevertheless we knew that Tiger Hill had burnt hard and fast on that very first day so we still had concerns about the residents of that part of the reserve. As soon as possible after the fire we loaded up with remote cameras and headed to the Southern boundary. Ironically, by that time, flooding rains had transformed the ashen understory to a blinding emerald green and we nearly got bogged on our way to our destination.
As we began the scramble up the southern slopes, we caught our first glimpse of a Mareeba Rock Wallaby and then another and then another, bounding off through the boulders. Relief. We also encountered common Wallaroos and even more Lacies, making their lazy way through the rejuvenating understory. Three weeks later, the retrieved cameras provided a montage of the happy locals that we're now delighted to share.
Signs of regeneration are all around us and we continue to see more silver linings from our Summer bushfire event. As the grassy understorey bounces back, we've observed the native species outcompeting their weedy rivals. Like their hilltop cousins, other macropods are plentiful, and happily mobbing up on the lush, new feed. And while the scorched might look devastating, it's actually a great result in the fight to reverse woody thickening, a widespread problem across the northern savannahs and a key goal of our fire management plan.
We’re also eager to see how this hot burn impacts upon our Siam Weed control program. In the past we’ve been able to use hot fire to successfully cook the Siam Weed bank as well as open up access to improve detection and treatment. Based on previous experience this should be our best siaming year yet!
Conservation land management is about resilience, perseverance and adapting to change. Just like the residents of Tiger Hill, we’ve bounced back from an exhausting fire season and are looking forward to rising to the challenges that 2020 has in store.
Now if only we could get the tractor out of that bog…