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Fiery footprints

Published 07 Oct 2021 

By Danika Davis

After 10 years of the Healthy Country Plan, Wunambal Gaambera country is thriving, with right-way fire lighting the way.

It is Yurrma/June in Wunambal Gaambera country. The King Edward River winds through rolling savanna country, glinting like a silver snake. Dugongs, turtles and whales glide along the Kimberley coastline. Savanna grasslands and fertile rainforests thrive with endemic species; Black Grasswrens (Amytornis Housei) flit about and Yilangal/Scaly-tailed Possums (Wyulda squamicaudata) shelter in rocks.

Inland, the peaceful early dry season air is interrupted with the choppy racket of the helicopter rotor as the Healthy Country team of Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners and Uunguu Rangers touch down near the river. The helicopter may be new, but the group’s purpose is as old as time: they are there to look after country with fire.

Wunambal Gaambera rangers light small grass fires as they walk. Photo Mark Jones.
Wunambal Gaambera rangers light small grass fires as they walk. Photo Mark Jones.

Every year, in this remote part of the north-western tip of Australia, rangers undertake a five-day fire walk during Yurrma (the early dry season from April-June) before the environment heats up and the parched plants become prone to big wildfires during Yuwala (the hot season from October to November).

Rangers burn slow, lighting fires as they go, as part of their right-way fire management.

“We were burning, keeping the land healthy. It was pretty hard, the one week walk, but once you settle into the bush it’s alright,” says Traditional Owner Collia Bundamarra.

2021 marks a decade since Wunambal Gaambera people’s exclusive native title was recognised and with the declaration of the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) they set out to look after their Country and protect Uunguu (their living home) by implementing their Healthy Country Plan.

Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) partnered with Bush Heritage Australia to assist Wunambal Gaambera people to develop the award-winning, world-class plan through a series of field trips and workshops. Wunambal Gaambera people identified 10 targets considered the most important things to look after to keep country healthy. A key target is right-way fire.

Through activities like air-dropping incendiaries and ground burning, rangers create a mosaic of fire patches that limits the extent of lightning strike wildfires between patches.

The outcome? A significant reduction of wildfires in the area.

Fire is used to protect important cultural values, 
such as rock art sites. Photo by Mark Jones.
Fire is used to protect important cultural values, such as rock art sites. Photo by Mark Jones.

Using traffic light indicators (red, yellow, green), WGAC report annually to Wunambal Gaambera people on both the health of the 10 targets and the progress of implementing the plan.

At the start of the plan, right-way fire was yellow (fair). Annual Yuwala wildfires damaged a 10-year average of 26% of country, with fires sometimes spreading over 100,000 hectares at their worst. Now, the annual average is under 10% and right-way fire is green (good).

The fire management stimulates bush foods to grow and fresh new growth for animals to eat, protects cultural sites and wulo (rainforest patches), helps plants and foods to flower and reduces carbon emissions, which WGAC use to access carbon credits from the federal government.

Carbon credits provide some of the revenue needed to implement the Healthy Country Plan including right-way fire.

WGAC’s Healthy Country Manager, Tom Vigilante, (this position is part of the Bush Heritage partnership assistance) is also on the walk. He says the Healthy Country Plan is based on Wunambal Gaambera people’s vision, including to prioritise traditional burning techniques.

“Making fire a target is a little bit unusual because some people might see fire as a threat. But the Elders emphasise that for them fire is a living thing. There’s law and culture wrapped around burning – cultural reasons for burning.”
Tom Vigilante working with Wunambal Gaambera rangers. Photo Mark Jones.
Tom Vigilante working with Wunambal Gaambera rangers. Photo Mark Jones.

“[The walk] is a bit different to some of the other operations that we might be doing during the year where we’re busy with cars and helicopters,” says Tom. “It’s more in touch with the landscape.”

The Traditional Owners and Uunguu Rangers feel these qualities as they walk.

“Burning, we can feel our old people, they would be proud of us. We are protecting our art sites,” says ranger Jeremy Kowan. “Being out on country, our old people are looking out for us, they are there protecting us.”

While the review of the Healthy Country Plan is currently underway, the signs of its success are abundant on Wunambal Gaambera Country.

This trip alone the team documented a Rock Ringtail Possum (Petropseudes dahli), believed to be the first sighting in the area; a sign that the health of their culture and country is strong.

As Jeremy puts it: “Take notice of the animals. If they are living healthy, you know the country is healthy. Just by looking at animals, like Emu and kangaroos, if they are strong and healthy, we know the country is healthy.”