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Walking with Fire

Published 21 Sep 2012 

Our partnership with the Wunambal Gaambera traditional landowners in the far-north Kimberley is helping protect the unique plants and wildlife of one of the most remote and little-visited corners of the globe.

Firewalk crew Uunguu rangers on their fourth annual fire walk in Wunambal Gaambera traditional lands. Photo: Tom Vigilante

One bright day in the early dry season, a team of Wunambal Gaambera rangers together with Tom Vigilante, Healthy Country Manager, were helicoptered in to one of the most remote and rugged places on earth to undertake a Bush Heritage supported Healthy Country activity.

For five long days and 50 kilometres, the team journeyed the Kimberleys' spectacular sandstone gorges and coastline - from the tops of the cliffs to the bottom of the flat plains, along the Hunter River, to the incredible Mitchell Plateau.

Aerial photo of fires

Their aim? To protect the area's vulnerable animals, plants and vegetation through ‘right-way fire' burning.

According to head ranger Neil Waina, ‘right-way' burning is a traditional practice that's been carried out by his ancestors for thousands of years and has become an annual event in the rangers' work calendar. It's a unique and respectful way of burning the Wunambal Gaambera peoples' uunguu - their living home - to make the savannah country healthy and prevent destructive wildfire.

‘Right-way fire' is just one part of the Healthy Country Plan - a 10-year conservation agreement between the Wunambal Gaambera traditional landowners and Bush Heritage. It integrates the strong body of traditional knowledge about the ecology of the Australian bush with western scientific methods, to ensure the lands you help Wunambal Gaambera people to manage are conserved for generations to come.

'Cool' burnA 'cool' burn. Photo: Graeme Chapman

A walk on the wild side

The Healthy Country team walked with fully-laden packs on their backs, camping under the stars after each day's work was done. They hunted freshwater crocodile and bream, and collected bush foods like yams, to nourish them during their trip.

As they walked, they worked as a team, lighting fires as they followed the creek line (a natural barrier). They watched for wildlife and recorded sightings of animals, plants and birds, like the Black grasswren, on handheld data collecting GPS devices.

"We recorded our route, any cultural sites we found and also feral animals and cattle," says Tom Vigilante. "This helps us think about where we might have to build fences so we can protect native wildlife and valuable rock paintings."

First-time finds

The Wunambal Gaambera rangers recorded some important animals, birds and plants for the first time on the walk.

1. The rough-scaled python
"This is quite hard to spot, but the rangers found one while we were walking. It's a really unusual-looking snake with big eyes - it's quite rare."

2. The black grasswren
"We found a population of four birds and when we checked the records no-one had reported them in the Hunter River region before."

Black grass wren Black grasswren. Photo: Graeme Chapman

3. Borya subulata
"We also found a species of resurrection plant (which survive extreme dehydration) called borya. It's from the lily family and dries out completely in the dry season and comes back to life when it rains.

Healthy country

The walk was also an opportunity for the Healthy Country team to increase knowledge about country and apply conservation techniques that will safeguard this very special area long into the future.

The group found the walk physically challenging, but enjoyed sharing their connection with the land.

Ernie Boona, one of the rangers, said "I felt happy to visit my grandmother's country for the first time, finding rock art and burning the right places to bring the country alive." Ernie took photos of the rock art home to show his grandmother, who told him the traditional stories depicted in the paintings.

"Everything we learned on the trip will help the rangers look after their ancestors' land even better," says Tom Vigilante. "Together with Bush Heritage supporters, we're working hard to protect this incredible place."

What is ‘right-way fire' burning?

‘Right-way fire' is the way in which the rangers use fire to improve the health of their land according to traditional practice.

The practice shares similarities with Bush Heritage's approach to fire management - taking a range of factors into consideration, including time of year, which plants rely on fire to flower or fruit and which don't cope with hot fires - while also respecting traditional law and rituals handed down from ancestors. It guides the rangers on such things as how to create the least amount of smoke to reduce climate change; and what balance of open country versus savannah woodland will maintain healthy habitat for kangaroos and wallabies, culturally significant species for Wunambal Gaambera people.