Burning the right way

Published 22 Mar 2019 

On Bunuba country, in the central Kimberley region of Western Australia, Aboriginal rangers are combining Western technologies with their traditional knowledge to keep a millenia-old tradition alive.

When the northern monsoons have made their way across the Kimberley and the goannas start to get fat, the Bunuba rangers wait for a bright yellow flower to appear on sandy river banks.

Burning along the banks of Bandaral Ngarri (the Fitzroy River) on Bunuba country. Photo by Richard Geddes.
Burning along the banks of Bandaral Ngarri (the Fitzroy River) on Bunuba country. Photo by Richard Geddes.
The Gilini plant (Sesbania cannabina) heralds the start of a season known to the Bunuba people as Girinybali. In Girinybali, water abounds. Country is active and alive. Plump Bambarri (freshwater mussels) are plentiful and the mighty Balga (Barramundi) start their annual migration upstream to permanent waters.

But the flowering of Gilini is more than an indicator of seasonal change. For thousands of years, Bunuba people have dried the stems of Gilini to make gunggali (traditional fire sticks), which they use to burn patches of their country in Girinybali. They call this process ‘right-way winthali (fire)’.

“Right-way fire is what people have been doing for years,” explains Bunuba Ranger Kendrick ‘Kendo’ Chungal. “It’s important to burn to get rid of the old grasses and rejuvenate for new growth. The fire helps keep the country healthy.”

Right-way winthali’s role in maintaining healthy wildlife and plants is enshrined in a new 10-year plan developed by Bunuba people, in partnership with Bush Heritage. The Jalangurru Muwayi (Healthy Country) Plan 2018–2028 identifies the implementation of right-way winthali as a key strategy for maintaining or improving the health of four out of the plan’s eight key targets.

“The plan will guide us to get things done on country, and protect and care for our country through the Western side and our ancient knowledge,” says Bunuba Ranger Monique Middleton.

“The Healthy Country Plan will let people know when it is the right time to let it burn, and when is not the right time,” adds Kendo.

Spinifex grass smolders during a controlled burn. Photo Peter Taylor.
Spinifex grass smolders during a controlled burn. Photo Peter Taylor.
The goal of rightway winthali is to create a patchwork mosaic of burnt and long-unburnt areas across the landscape, thus ensuring diversity of habitat for animals and plants.

Matches, drip torches, helicopters and traditional burning methods are all used to create this mosaic effect. High resolution images and mapping from Sentinel satellites allow rangers to identify patches of country that have previously been burnt and other areas that need to be protected from fire.

“We look at the fire history over at least 10 years and we really want to try and protect some of the areas that haven’t burnt for three years or more,” explains Bush Heritage’s National Fire Program Manager, Richard Geddes, who works closely with the Bunuba rangers to plan and implement burns on their country.

“We want to protect the fire-sensitive areas like rainforest patches, sandstone heaths and spinifex, so we’ll burn small breaks around them to try and stop the large bushfires from spreading into those areas later in the year.

“Long unburnt spinifex is a really critical food source for threatened Gouldian Finches and other granivorous (seed-eating) birds, so that’s another area we try to identify and protect.” By creating regular and welcome opportunities for Bunuba people to go out on and care for their country, often for the first time in many decades, it is clear that the benefits of right-way winthali far surpass simply the ecological.

For the first time, female Bunuba rangers like Monique are undertaking the fire training required for them to take part in fire work, while a new Healthy Country Camp focussing on fire is in the planning phase.

“It’ll be a great improvement this year to have more female rangers on the ground and working on fire,” says Richard. “We’re planning to do a fire camp so we’ll hopefully get some older Traditional Owners out with some of the younger generations and they can show them how to use the fire sticks.”

The rangers, who are leading these plans, couldn’t be happier.

“I like that I get to go places, places that you’ve never been before,” says Kendo.

“Going out on country, it’s healing,” agrees Monique.

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