Australia's Kimberley

The Nature Conservancy in Australia: Fighting Fire in the Outback

Guest Contributor|October 31, 2017|Blog Post

Australia’s scenic landscapes have inspired travelers for countless generations. It’s a wild and beautiful land with a diverse array of ecosystems, ranging from lush rainforests and technicolor reefs to the red sands of the Outback and rocky outcrops like Uluru and the Kimberley.

The country is home to an astonishing variety of natural wonders. Animating these landscapes are a host of utterly unique wildlife species. From kangaroos, koalas, and quokkas to dingoes, platypus, and the mighty saltwater crocodile, Australia is home to more species than any other developed country.

Journeys to Australia often include Uluru, the country’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sacred place for the Anagu Aboriginal people, Uluru is a large outcrop of red sandstone that rises up out of the flat Outback desert. And then there’s Daintree National Park in Northern Queensland, the most ancient rainforest in the world, which is home to countless flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. In the town of Port Douglas, the ancient rainforest meets the famous Great Barrier Reef

Unfortunately, most of the stunning landscapes Australia is so famous for are highly fire-prone. Bushfires have been part of the reality in my native country for millions of years. Here’s a look at the problem, and how The Nature Conservancy is working diligently to help protect the Outback.


Understanding Bushfires 

Fire has played a fundamental part in shaping the ecology of Australian landscapes for millions of years. With long, dry summers and highly flammable vegetation, all it takes for a bushfire to ignite is a lightning strike or irresponsible human behavior. As a result, bushfires happen in Australia every summer, often numbering in the hundreds.

A bushfire is an unplanned fire, and severe fires occur as a result of record high temperatures, low relative humidity, and strong winds. This combination creates ideal conditions for a wildfire to spread rapidly. Unfortunately, much of Australia continues to experience drought. And a lot of the country’s Outback is made up of grasslands, which makes for a highly combustible fuel source.

Destructive bushfires are becoming increasingly more common, which has prompted a nationwide discussion on how to manage them more sustainably.


The Nature Conservancy in Australia 

In Australia, The Nature Conservancy has been actively involved in fire management, bushfire education, and advocacy for sustainable land policy. One of the main focus points of their Australian efforts is working directly with Aboriginal communities across northern Australia to bring back traditional methods of managing bushfires. In the process, they’re creating more employment opportunities for indigenous people.

It has long been recognized that Aboriginal fire management should be part of the solution to Australia’s destructive bushfires. The traditional owners of the land, indigenous Australians have protected their land for millennia via controlled burning. They knew that by burning vegetation in cooler months, they could prevent large wildfires spreading across the landscape. In doing so, they encouraged healthy re-growth, sustained bush food sources, and protected cultural sites and the native wildlife habitat.

The aim of controlled burning is to reduce fuel hazards, manage native vegetation, and protect biodiversity. Reducing fuel hazards is vitally important, as it can make bushfires easier to control and prevent them from wiping out environments and/or endangered species. While devastating at the outset, controlled burning is essential for effective biodiversity conservation, and plays an important role in sustaining and promoting animal and plant diversity.


How Fire Management Helps the Environment

Fire actively stimulates the regeneration and renewal of the ecosystem by allowing the soil to release valuable nutrients, which allows plant species to regenerate. In fact, some plant species are actively reliant on fire for regeneration. The disruption to Aboriginal fire management has seen the extinction of the native cypress pine from savannas across Northern Australia. And many other species have been pushed closer to extinction by the way fire patterns have changed over the past few decades.

One of the main motivations of indigenous Aboriginal tribes for burning Australia’s savannas was to attract kangaroos to the nutrient-rich grass which grows after the fire. Skilled fire management in the desert also increased the habitat for sand goannas. For the native wildlife—who prefer lush regenerated vegetation to the dry, unburned alternative—controlled burning ensures that there are a mix of habitats available. It also creates better wildlife habitat by adding to the number of fallen branches and logs. The loss of limbs creates tree hollows, which are vital for the survival of numerous animal species.

Scientific research suggests that sustained Aboriginal fire management played a key role in shaping the Australian landscapes we know today, and is key to improved biodiversity in the future. Though it may be an ancient practice, controlled burning also solves a modern problem: Small, cool fires release far fewer greenhouse gases than large, hot ones.

The ideal result of fighting large fires with controlled burning is a healthy ecosystem with less greenhouse gases and a thriving wildlife habitat. The Nature Conservancy recognized an opportunity to involve Aboriginal Australians in this process, renewing an ancient tradition that only ended as a result of European settlement.


Zegrahm Expeditions' Trips to Australia 

Zegrahm Expeditions offers two very different tours in Australia, which span the country and showcase a diverse array of Australia’s ecotourism attractions.

The Best of the Great Barrier Reef expedition is a brand new trip that uncovers the underwater wonders of the world’s largest coral reef. The reef is currently listed as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Zegrahm’s 15-day tour includes daily snorkel and dive excursions to explore remote parts of the reef that are far off the typical tourist track; nature walks through coastal areas, such as Lizard Island; and the possibility of swimming with minke whales as they migrate through the North Queensland waters.

The Australia’s Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback expedition is arguably among the most captivating Australian adventures any nature lover can experience. The 15-day tour allows guests to discover some of Australia’s most iconic and unique wildlife, including massive saltwater crocodiles and the elusive rock wallaby. There’s also a chance to take a helicopter ride over the dramatic gorges of the Mitchell Plateau, swim in the crystal-clear pools above Mitchell Falls, and visit the Tiwi Islands to join local Aboriginal guides in their small community of Nguiu.

Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.

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