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Fire on Yourka Reserve, Jirrbal and Warrungu Country, QLD. Photo: Alistair Hartley
Fire on Yourka Reserve, Jirrbal and Warrungu Country, QLD. Photo: Alistair Hartley

Team spark

Words by Bee Stephens
Location: Jirrbal and Warrungu Country, Queensland
Published 25 Mar 2024

Teamwork, firebreaks and prescribed burning protects Yourka Reserve.

As a dry wind blew, daylight crept across Yourka Reserve, Jirrbal and Warrungu Country, to reveal thick clouds of smoke. Healthy Landscape Manager Paul Hales woke to changed conditions and a briefing from the atmosphere of what the next few weeks would entail.

For the past seven days, a bushfire had threatened Yourka’s north-eastern border. The fire’s movement had been restricted by fire scars conducted earlier in the dry season and firebreaks. But overnight, an unpredicted change in the wind pushed the fire between a gap in two scars, which spread onto the conservation reserve.

The blaze began in mid-October, and rural crews from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services provided initial support to help fight the fire.

Then, more of the Bush Heritage team assembled. Over the following weeks, National Fire Program Manager Rhys Swain, his crew of fire officers, and a number of staff from across the country travelled to Queensland’s Einasleigh Uplands to help contain the fire.

“The wind and speed of this fire broke through containment lines we had established earlier in 2023,” recalls Rhys. “The fire threatened riparian zones, old habitat trees found in the savanna open woodlands, and some of the reserve’s infrastructure.”

The team’s days would entail rising before dawn and returning late in the evening. After a gruelling two and a half weeks, they successfully contained the fire and protected close to 70% of the reserve’s conservation targets and homestead.

Rhys is confident the land impacted by the fire will heal. “Many people will look at a burnt patch of land and think ‘Oh, that’s bad’, but this vegetation has evolved with fire,” says Rhys. “Thankfully the fire didn’t spread too far, which will help this Country to bounce back really, really fast.”

Rhys emphasises, “It’s the prescribed burns that help to mitigate the severity of uncontrollable, destructive bushfires.”

Effective management of fuel loads helped protect Yourka Reserve, Jirrbal and Warrungu Country, QLD. Photo: Alistair Hartley.

Fire has always played a role in Yourka’s landscape, and its appropriate management is vital to the reserve’s protection. Located in north Queensland, the reserve experiences extreme wet and dry weather cycles. The wet season’s high rainfall drives intense growth of the reserve’s vegetation, which dries over the winter months to become fuel for dangerous fire during the late dry season.

Throughout the year, Paul works closely with ecologists, Rhys and the Fire team to review and implement Yourka’s fire management plan, which is tailored to the unique landscape. In the early dry season, when temperatures are cooler and moisture is still present in the soil profile, prescribed burns are completed to reduce fuel build-up and, in turn, the intensity of bushfires in the months that follow.

“Without the earlier season burning in place, there’s potential the whole of the reserve and multiple neighbouring properties would’ve been impacted. This fire shows that our strategies of maintaining firebreaks, establishing standalone water tanks, and conducting prescribed burns are working,” explains Paul.

Rhys acknowledges that each year brings new lessons alongside more severe climatic conditions, requiring their work plans to constantly adapt. “No matter how efficient our planning and preparation is, or the mitigation work that we complete, there will always be a need to go and put a bushfire out.”

As the last of the flames were extinguished, Rhys was left with a hopeful spark: Bush Heritage staff are always ready to lend a hand. 

The team at Yourka supported each other in any way they could, whether that was by holding a hose or cooking a hearty meal at the end of a long day’s work.

“It was such an incredible team effort from all involved,” says Rhys. “They’re legends, every one of them.”

We gratefully acknowledge The Cecil & Neita Quail Charitable Trust, E T A Basan Charitable Trust, The Rothwell Wildlife Preservation Trust, and Perpetual Foundation's The Isabel Sims Endowment and Paul Prindable Endowment for their support of the National Fire Program Manager role.

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