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A flooded claypan at Pilungah Reserve. By Ingo Schomacker
A flooded claypan at Pilungah Reserve. By Ingo Schomacker

A dry flood

Location: Wangkamadla Country, Queensland
Words by: Bron Willis
Published 13 Jun 2023

In February this year, from a six-seater aircraft flying at low altitude, Corinna Clark and Ingo Schomacker, Bush Heritage reserve staff, looked down over vast tracts of Central West Queensland’s channel country covered with endless water.

After flooding, the plane provided access back onto Pilungah Reserve, and a vantage point they’d never gained over Wangkamadla Country. For Corinna and Ingo, the view of the high flood waters told them it could be weeks until they could leave the reserve again to resupply. In the end, it was months.

“All the channels and everything was flooded. The country that wasn’t underwater was so green. We could see waterbirds everywhere. It was just beautiful,” says Corinna.
A Brolga on a lush floodplain at Pilungah Reserve. By Kyle Barton
A Brolga on a lush floodplain at Pilungah Reserve. By Kyle Barton

For three years, the eastern, northern and central parts of Australia have been experiencing La Niña – one part of a naturally occurring weather cycle. Over this year’s summer, Pilungah received 130mm of rain, and neighbouring Ethabuka Reserve received above average rainfall of 260mm. In addition, record-breaking rains in the Northern Territory filled rivers flowing south and began to inundate rivers and channels surrounding central-western Queensland.

By February, Pilungah and Ethabuka were looking spectacular – the reserves’ gibber plains and grassy areas greened up, turning the landscapes from their usual red to a verdant green. The Country was alive with the deafening sounds of frogs calling, waterbirds squawking and finches feeding on the plentiful insect life: life was flourishing in the throes of the ‘boom’ part of a ‘boom-bust’ cycle.

For Helene Aubault and Kyle Barton, ecologist and reserve manager who live 65km south of Pilungah at Bush Heritage’s Ethabuka Reserve, their experience has been similar. Both teams know that in this country of extremes, after abundance comes challenge. As La Niña shifts towards El Niño (the drier, warmer part of the weather cycle, which is predicted for later in 2023) they are deep in preparation: even while some of the landscape is still underwater, the country above water is beginning to look different.

“It became hot and dry quickly, and everything dried out in just a few weeks,” says Helene. “The green was replaced by the landscape’s usual golden yellow, but now with thicker vegetation cover.”

The animals are noticing it too.

“The aquatic species go dormant again. Nearly all the frogs burrow back in the sand from the moment the rain goes away. And, as the wetlands dry, the water-birds flock to the ones that still have water,” says Kyle.

As the landscape shifts, Corinna, Ingo, Helene and Kyle turn their thoughts to bushfire.

“There’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” says Ingo. “The next fire season could be a bad one. The only thing you can do is prepare the reserve for it.”

Rhys Swain, Bush Heritage’s National Fire Program Manager, has been busy bringing the people who care for Pilungah and Ethabuka together, to manage the many risks as the cycle turns from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’. These include erosion, flourishing weeds (such as invasive buffel grass), booming feral populations and, most importantly, fire.

“Large wildfires occur when rainfall has been above-average, and we’re predicting above-normal fire potential for the 2023–24 summer,” says Rhys.

“Our work plan for the next few months involves maintaining firebreaks, waterpoints and asset protection zones, and also carrying out prescribed burning off tracks and from the air using an incendiary device when the weather is suitable.”

In particular, the team considers huge tracts of long unburnt spinifex, for which this part of Australia is so well known. While fire is a natural part of the bush, not every vegetation type can survive it.

A creekline snakes through Pilungah Reserve. Photo by Ingo Schomacker
A creekline snakes through Pilungah Reserve. Photo by Ingo Schomacker

“Spinifex is kept safe from fires by gaps between the hummocks,” says Rhys. “But when these gaps fill up with vegetation, suddenly you have a situation where a fire can be sustained.”

It’s already been a big year for Pilungah and Ethabuka, and it’s only going to get bigger as the weather shifts. The land management plans implemented across channel country will be monitored carefully and documented as the team at Bush Heritage get busy adapting and crafting resilient responses to our changing climate.

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