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Bunuba right-way winthali

Rhys Swain (Fire Program Officer)
Published 27 Apr 2021 by Rhys Swain (Fire Program Officer)

Winthali (fire) is an integral component of the seasonal calendar for the Bunuba people in the central-west Kimberley. Each year the region is threatened by large destructive wildfires from August until the wet season breaks.

Careful planning with Traditional Owners and early dry season prescribed burning or ‘right-way fire’ has been proven to reduce the extent and frequency of these wildfires.

Bunuba country is mostly open woodland with spinifex on the hills and tussock grasses in the valleys. The rivers and creek lines that run off the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges have carved out amazing gorges through the sandstone creating fire shadows – areas rarely impacted by fire due to their geology or topography.

Picture, for instance, a tight gorge within sandstone, or a rocky sloped mountainside. These fire shadows provide the right conditions for fire-sensitive vine thicket species to flourish.

There are also vast areas of giant granite boulders providing perfect habitat for critical-weight-range mammals such as the Short-eared Wallaby and fruit-bearing fig trees among many other important habitat trees.

These areas need annual maintenance with the careful introduction of fire when weather conditions are mild, creating slow moving fires that consume leaf litter and dry grasses and leave patches of unburnt country, with trees and fallen logs intact providing refugia for small animals.

Last week, Bunuba Traditional Owner Isaac Middleton and I carried out an aerial survey of fire-sensitive vegetation across the Bunuba exclusive possession native title area. The survey results are incorporated into a database to help inform decision making around prescribed burning.

The survey also recorded a Short-eared Wallaby bounding among a granite boulder field, which provides shelter from predators and natural fire protection, allowing spinifex and other grasses to remain long unburnt.

We also carried out some test fires to gauge a better understanding of how the country is drying out in preparation for the early dry season burning program.

This year the burning program aims to leave more than 80% of the total area unburnt.

Using winthali to create landscape-scale strategic breaks in the mild autumn months will prevent fires from spreading across the country under hot, dry and windy conditions later in the year.

We hope you enjoy these photos from this special part of Australia.

This project received grant funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Heritage Grants Program.

Bunuba Traditional Owner Isaac Middleton assisting Bush Heritage staff with an aerial survey of northern Bunuba Country. Photo by Rhys Swain. Bunuba Traditional Owner Isaac Middleton assisting Bush Heritage staff with an aerial survey of northern Bunuba Country. Photo by Rhys Swain.
Granite outcrops are islands of diverse flora within a vast spinifex landscape. Much of this type of country hasn’t been widely surveyed within the Bunuba Traditional Lands. Photo by Rhys Swain. Granite outcrops are islands of diverse flora within a vast spinifex landscape. Much of this type of country hasn’t been widely surveyed within the Bunuba Traditional Lands. Photo by Rhys Swain.
2020/21 La Nina provided much needed rainfall to the Kimberley region with creeks and rivers running and the landscape a flourish of green. Photo by Rhys Swain. 2020/21 La Nina provided much needed rainfall to the Kimberley region with creeks and rivers running and the landscape a flourish of green. Photo by Rhys Swain.
Fires lit using matches on foot continue to burn through the day, self-extinguishing over night with light winds, cool temperatures and high humidity.  Photo by Rhys Swain. Fires lit using matches on foot continue to burn through the day, self-extinguishing over night with light winds, cool temperatures and high humidity. Photo by Rhys Swain.

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