There are more than 6,000 patches of rainforest on Wunambal Gaambera country, for which fire can be both protector and destroyer.
The sun was low in the sky when Stefania Ondei finally decided to call it a day. An Italian PhD student lured to the Kimberley by a scientific challenge, Stefania, alongside Uunguu Rangers, was looking for a tiny patch of rainforest in the remote savannah grasslands of Wunambal Gaambera country, the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area, in far-north Western Australia.
Rainforests are a lesser-known feature of this landscape, famed for its rugged coastlines and spectacular gorges. But thanks to Stefania’s research, initiated and funded by the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), it’s now been revealed there are more than 6,000 patches scattered across it.
They'd all but given up hope of finding the particular patch they were looking for, until a pigeon appeared nearby.
“I was once told that some pigeon species of the northern Kimberley are predominantly found in rainforests,” says Stefania. “So I decided to follow it.”
“After no more than a couple of minutes, there it was, behind a hill – the rainforest I was after.”
Wunambal Gaambera people call the rainforest on their country ‘wulo’. It's home to about 25% of northern Kimberley plant species, including food and medicine plants, and threatened or endemic animals like the Golden-backed Tree-rat and Roughscaled Python.
Many patches of wulo are less than one hectare in size. Aside from making them very difficult to find, their small size means those patches are exceptionally vulnerable to wildfire.
For many millennia, ancestors of the Wunambal Gaambera people burned their country in the early dry-season. This practice reduced fuel loads and created fire breaks, which in turn reduced the number and severity of naturally lit late dry-season wildfires – the kind that can destroy a small patch of wulo.
Traditional fire walks largely ceased when Wunambal Gaambera people were moved off their land in the early 20th century to missions. But that’s now changing.
In 2011, Wunambal Gaambera people's native title over their country was recognised and a partnership was formed between Bush Heritage and the WGAC. That partnership supports the implementation of the Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Plan for looking after country and culture, which is implemented on the ground by Uunguu Rangers.
The protection of wulo, one of the ten key targets identified in the plan, is largely dependent on the work that Uunguu Rangers are doing to reinstate traditional fire management practices.
In effect, they are using ‘right-way fire’ to safeguard against the most damaging aspects of wildfire: their size and their ferocity.
“Our ancestors used right-way fire from generation-to-generation”, says Neil Waina, Uunguu Head Ranger. “They passed their knowledge to us and we will pass it down to the next generation.”
Neil says his people feel good doing these burns because they return the country to good health. But late dry season burns, or wildfires, are different.
“When you see late season burning, the country isn’t looking good. If there’s a hot fire, hardly anything will grow in that area... No hunting, no life.”
Since 2011, Uunguu Rangers with support from Bush Heritage have more than halved the number of late dry-season wildfires on Wunambal Gaambera country compared to the period from 2000 to 2009, when no traditional burning methods were in place. This has been achieved through combining fire walks with aerial fire drops over less accessible regions.
Tom Vigilante, Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Manager, says Stefania’s research will help the Uunguu Rangers conduct their fire management more conscientiously.
“Now that the rainforests have been mapped, we can actually have their locations in front of us on a tablet when rangers are doing aerial burning in the helicopter,” he says.
“They can have the information right at their fingertips about where they are and how they might apply fire in that area to look after the rainforest.”
Speaking over the phone from her office at the University of Tasmania, Stefania reflects on what she’s learned about this landscape through her research.
Ultimately, she says, its past, present and future are all inextricably tied to the Wunambal Gaambera people.
“The country takes care of them, and they take care of country.”
This summer, wildfires will threaten many parts of Australia. Bush Heritage is expanding its fire management program to mitigate that risk.
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