Caring for the Environment
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Burning in the Kimberley!

Welcome to The Kimberley WA Blog Site.

Tackling Kimberley Environmental Issues with Lee Scott-Virtue.

This Blog Site will look at a number of the environmental issues that are being tackled by Kimberley Specialists in Research and Kimberley Toad Busters. We are hoping that open debate will increase public awareness of the huge environmental issues effecting the Kimberley.

Burning in the Kimberley! Is this a good or bad management tool?

Please have your say! What is your opinion about aerial burning practices in the Kimberley? Have you noticed any changes in burning practices and its impact on vegetation and other iconic features such as our rivers and creeks? Do you agree with our WA Governments approach to burning? Should Aboriginal Ranger groups also be trained to undertake aerial burning without having any knowledge of what’s on the ground? Is there any sense to the reasons why this aerial burning takes place? Are we burning for the wrong reasons and for the sake of burning? Can you really undertake a ‘controlled’ aerial burn without on-ground management in place?

The Kimberley is frequently described as having a pristine environment with biodiversity rich untouched eco-systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poor government land-care and feral animal management decision making, and out of control ‘government directed controlled’ aerial hot burns, deliberately lit burns from the backs of vehicles by people who burn because they think they should, have impacted heavily on the Kimberley environments natural and cultural resources. Aerial and other burning practices have increased exponentially over the past two and a half decades with vast areas of the Kimberley being burnt every year, with some areas experiencing burning more than once. Aerial burning is now being undertaken by the Department of Environment, Fire and Emergency Services and several Aboriginal Corporations with little coordination between any of them. The once magnificent pristine Kimberley river and creek systems are suffering from intense out of control annual burning causing unprecedented flooding and soil movement from catchment areas as well as a steady shifting of many creeks and rivers from perennial flows to barely annual flows. Mound springs are disappearing. Native vegetation is giving way to introduced plant species and dominant woody weeds and to increasing barren de-vegetated areas. Native wild life and cultural rock art assets are being impacted badly by increasingly hot fires. It is obvious to those who have lived in the Kimberley for most if not all their lives that the more ‘controlled’ aerial burning that takes place, the hotter and more frequent the late season fires, one of the reasons provided for the rationalisation behind aerial burning programs. Essentially the Kimberley is now experiencing hot and intense fires for most of the dry and often in some parts of the wet season if the rains have not been good.

The debate on Fire as an Environmental Management Tool.

The use of fire as a management tool in looking after our environment is subject to intense debate. Those bodies involved in looking at the ‘holistic’ approach to managing the environment, argue that fire is not a good environmental tool, particularly because of the far reaching effects of fire on the earth’s ozone layer. Dr Allan Savory, an internationally prominent biologist and leading expert in looking at ways towards creating a sustainable civilization, goes so far as to state that ‘any fire lit by man is not acceptable”.

The introduction of Aerial burning, its frequency (annual program) and intensity, has dramatically increased the geographical spread of fire throughout the Kimberley, and while maps and graphs of fire burning regimes include late season burning results, what is clear is the enormous geographical spread of the burns and the obvious evidence that many areas are now being burnt on an annual basis. Aerial burning has also introduced fire into some of the more remote areas of the Kimberley not previously burnt by humans since European contact, and has played a role in destroying the last of the Aboriginal fire mosaics previously created over thousands of years. Unfortunately the fire mapping record does not go back far enough to show a record of areas that have not had fire prior to the aerial burning program, so that some parts of the Kimberley, particularly those now being managed by government, that may not have had burns for decades or more, are now experiencing regular annual burns.
My own research estimates that national parks and Aboriginal land now burn, on average, 50% of their managed lands every year. Since the introduction of aerial burning programs with Indigenous Ranger training programs this figure is increasing each year.

Research by others has shown the major decline in Cyprus Pine and other plants, seeding birds, and many of our iconic mammal species in the north of Australia, have been partly attributed to too much fire, and too much being burnt year after year (Fitzsimons et al: 2010).

Aboriginal Burning Practices.

Prior to European settlement, fire was carefully managed and controlled by Aboriginal people, were low in intensity and generally of a very small scale and referred to as “firestick farming” (Jones: 1969). Traditional burning was observed as a means of increasing the productivity of the land by increasing food resources, allow for easier movement across the landscape, and over thousands of years, produced a complex, small scale, mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas (Jones 1969). Since European impact the vegetation has largely changed, with introduced grasses and middle storey vegetation reacting to fire in a very different way than the native vegetation that dominated the landscape before European impact (Fitzsimons et al: 2010).
Consultation with Kimberley Aboriginal people by government departments are based on the assumption that contemporary Aboriginal people understand their ancestor’s way of burning (Palmer: 2001). It has been argued that present ‘fire regimes’ undertaken by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley should not be seen as a continuation of ‘traditional’ burning practices such as that still ‘largely’ observed in Arnhem Land, due to the early dislocation of people because of impacts of the pastoral stations (Head 1994).
Observations during this research indicate that fire management decisions based on contemporary information are seriously miss-informing the public, and contemporary Aboriginal people, about ancient practices of why and how Aboriginal people once burnt country.

The introduction of large aerial scale burning by state government agencies has encouraged Aboriginal people in the Kimberley to begin burning differently and more prolifically, to that undertaken during the ‘station’ days, when burning mainly took place during the early wet season through to the late wet season, and when they were staying in their ‘holiday’ camps (personal comment; Aboriginal elder Bonnie Edwards). Contemporary Aboriginal burning is primarily undertaken from the back of a vehicle, for no other reason than they have been ‘told’ this is part of their traditional burning regime, and more recently government funding has been provided to Aboriginal Corporations to undertake aerial burning.
Burning is also taking place well into the dry season, with many of the late hot season burns being lit by young Aboriginal people because of their lack of understanding of the consequences, and with the misconception that they are burning ‘to make country healthy’ and the way Aboriginal people ‘have always done’.
The reasons for traditional Aboriginal burning have obviously changed. Hunting for food (and sustainability of food resources, caring for children, pregnant women and the aged, is no longer critical for survival, and ‘hunting’ (using modern technology) is undertaken by contemporary Aborigines for pleasure and as a substitute for the processed purchased food they now depend on.

Ensuring long-term sustainability of food resources for survival would have been very much a priority by Aboriginal groups prior to European impact. There does, however, seem to be little understanding by many contemporary Kimberley Aboriginal people, of the impact of large scale burning on native plants and animals or on their own cultural heritage (personal observation). This is also the case with other factors such as the cane toad. Reaction to the inevitable arrival of the cane toad and its impact on many of the species that make up modern hunting practices today, has resulted in communities that had not yet been impacted by the cane toad, setting out on a ‘killing’ spree to make sure they were able to get their ‘bush tucker’ food before the cane toad arrives (personal observation).

In protecting ‘special’ and ‘sacred’ sites, traditional Aboriginal burning would probably have been carried out by the Aboriginal caretakers of the rock art (and other sites of cultural heritage significant to Aboriginal people at the time) in a way that ensured there was no build-up of vegetation against, or around the rock shelter and other sites of cultural significance (Figure 2). Contemporary cultural practices such as burning cannot be used to represent traditional and cultural practices of thousands of years ago (Figure 3). The preservation of many of the Kimberley rock art images that may be thousands of years old seems to suggest that Aboriginal people once ‘managed’ their cultural heritage and natural resources differently to that undertaken today.
Impacts of burning on Ancient Rock Art and other cultural sites.
Pastoralism, mining, feral animals and fire management are acknowledged as major threats facing the decline of native biodiversity in the Northern Territory and Kimberley. What is least understood, or studied, is the impact of fire on the long term sustainability of rock art in the Kimberley.

In the Kimberley Pastoralism interrupted Aboriginal cultural activities, removed people from their traditional country, and has resulted in contemporary Aboriginal people having little or no knowledge of how their ancestors managed country. Fire impact on Aboriginal rock art and other cultural heritage sites in the Kimberley is almost certainly not a recent phenomenon, and has probably been occurring since early European contact. However, what has changed in the last two and a half decades is how we burn, the way we burn and the extent of the areas we now burn, with fire increasingly moving into the more remote sandstone country of the Kimberley.

The last decade particularly has observed an increase in the number of participants burning and the amount of country being burnt at one time. The end result has been an increasing ratio of damage and destruction to Aboriginal sites throughout the Kimberley
My own thirty year Kimberley research confirms that fire is the major destructive factor in the destruction of rock art.

A rock overhang on Planigale Creek showing extreme fire induced exfoliation. This was recorded only a week after the fire went through. This site may or may not have contained paintings at one time, but without any previous record of recording we can only assume that this rock overhang might represent an example of sites lost to fire before they are recorded.

A badly fire induced exfoliated Bradshaw rock art site in the Lawley River area. Only the top half of the figure now survives (see circled area). Charred pieces of timber lying next to the rock face provide testament that unmanaged vegetation in the site was responsible for this damage.

A small exfoliated piece of rock located on the floor of a site in the Planigale Creek system showing a small area of ochre. Other fragments located in the shelter also showed evidence of ochre, indicating that the site once had a number of paintings on the rock surface.

What has changed?

Fire has probably always played a role in contributing towards some damage to rock art and other archaeological sites. However, a burn resulting from lightning strikes and the careful management of traditional Aboriginal people prior to European contact has probably ensured this damage was minimal. The fact that most lightning strikes are frequently accompanied by rain indicates that their impact on the landscape has always been minimal, particularly when Aboriginal people were managing the landscape with their ‘fire-stick’ management (Jones 1969).

The change in vegetation and fire management, the loss of traditional burning to protect significant rock art and ceremonial sites, and the resulting late often ‘deliberately lit’ late wild fires have increased the impact and damage of fire to rock art.

This increase of damage to rock art and other cultural heritage sites through fire appears to relate to a number of factors. Loss of traditional knowledge, the introduction of aerial burning, and the excessive use of this method of prescribed burning, the minor option (of how and when to burn) by fire managers for wet season burns, the de-stocking program, increasing hot fires, rapid changes in vegetation (and uncontrolled vegetation growth) in and around the sandstone overhangs, and little or no management in and around rock art sites.