Six months on

Published 12 Jun 2020 

Silver linings shine as Bush Heritage’s Yourka Reserve in far north Queensland regenerates following a significant bushfire last year.

One summer’s night halfway through December 2019, a lightning strike hit Bush Heritage’s Yourka Reserve on Jirrbal and Warrungu country in far north Queensland.

Tiger Hill on Yourka Reserve, Qld. Photo Martin Willis.
Tiger Hill on Yourka Reserve, Qld. Photo Martin Willis.

Yourka is no stranger to lightning. This is the Einasleigh Uplands, where the summers are hot and humid and storms are a dime a dozen. Typically, lightning will strike a tree, causing a fire that will burn 20 metres or so, get rained on and self-extinguish.

That night in December however, the rain didn’t come.

Suffering from a string of dry months, the reserve was, in the words of long-time Yourka Reserve Manager Paul Hales, “basically cardboard”. He estimates that Yourka’s ‘cure rate’ – a measurement used to assess grass flammability – was close to the maximum of 100%.

For the first time in Bush Heritage’s 11-year history of protecting Yourka, a lightning strike had started a bushfire.

By the next morning, the fire was burning hot and fast. It swept up and over Yourka’s eastern foothills including Tiger Hill, where a population of diminutive Mareeba Rock-wallabies live amongst the granite outcrops. Wind at its back, the flames continued westwards.

Mareeba Rock-wallaby (Petrogale mareeba). Photo by Dave Watts/ naturepl.com.
Mareeba Rock-wallaby (Petrogale mareeba). Photo by Dave Watts/ naturepl.com.

Paul, other Bush Heritage staff, units from the Queensland Rural Fire Service, neighbours and contractors would spend the next 10 days containing the fire, responding to the last active ground burning on Christmas Day. It would take another 12 days of patrolling and mopping up to completely extinguish the blaze.

All up, 18,800 hectares of Yourka burnt – approximately 43% of the reserve or an area roughly 10 times the size of tourist town Port Douglas. After that first, intense day however, the blaze moved at a slower pace, allowing animals time to escape and causing minimal long-term damage to vegetation.

For many of us, fire invokes fear. Yet in northern Australia, fire is part of the furniture. This is a landscape of extremes where ecosystems not only endure burning, but often also benefit from it.

As Paul puts it, “this country has burnt before and it will burn again”.

Six months on and Yourka is buzzing with life. Thanks to 500 millimetres of late summer rain that arrived five weeks after the blaze, major creeks are flowing clean and clear. It’s as if a green film has been placed over the landscape.

“All the burnt country is heavy with grass,” says Paul. “The Cockatoo Grass is at shoulder height, the Giant Speargrass almost double that, the big trees look happy. Pretty much everything is coming back.”

“It can be hard to imagine after weeks of exhausting work fighting fires that the country will spring back so incredibly, but it has,” adds Leanne Hales, Paul’s wife and Bush Heritage Volunteer Coordinator for northern Australia.

Yourka Reserve Manager Paul Hales. Photo Martin Willis.
Yourka Reserve Manager Paul Hales. Photo Martin Willis.

Like much of far north Queensland, Yourka struggles with woody thickening, a phenomenon whereby trees grow close together. The shade produced by this crowding suffocates the growth of grasses, herbs and shrubs critical to the diets of animals like Rufous Bettongs, Brown- and Long-nosed Bandicoots, Melomys and other native rodents.

“The problem is that you end up with a monoculture… which is hard to reverse,” says Paul. “Those key species like Cockatoo Grass and Kangaroo Grass, that’s what we’re trying to restore and that’s what will help all those ground-dwelling mammals.”

Addressing woody thickening is one of the main aims of Yourka’s fire plan. For up to eight weeks each year, Bush Heritage staff and contractors put in controlled, cool burns to help prevent woody thickening and reduce the severity and size of dry season bushfires.

December’s fire helped to thin out the trees on Yourka to the extent that in some parts of the reserve, daylight is hitting the ground for the first time in 25 years; good news for that all-important understorey.

Grassy woodlands on Yourka Reserve. Photo Martin Willis.
Grassy woodlands on Yourka Reserve. Photo Martin Willis.

“This fire will hopefully flick the switch the other way so those big old hollow-bearing trees like Stringybarks and Bloodwoods might be able to replace themselves over time,” explains Paul. “That’s ideal habitat for arboreal mammals like Greater Gliders and Possums.”

Another upside; easier visibility of and access to infestations of Siam Weed and Lantana – two of the biggest ecological challenges at Yourka. And another; a lot of weeds don’t like fire so Paul’s betting on their seedbanks being depleted.

A heart-stopping moment

And the Mareeba Rock-wallabies? Paul and Leanne visited Tiger Hill a few weeks after the fire went through. As they clambered up the craggy granite outcrop to set up monitoring cameras, unsure of what they would find at the top, a flash of movement caught their eyes.

A Mareeba Rock-wallaby bounced out, followed by another and another. Four healthy animals were spotted that day, and images collected from the camera traps since have confirmed more, including joeys and babies in their mother’s pouches.

“We were both extremely relieved,” recalls Paul. “There was a big question mark over that population so we were happy to see them and see that they were none the worse for wear.”

“The Rock-wallabies are a symbol really,” says Leanne. “They’re a symbol that the country bounces back.” The silver linings shine.