Case studies

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Case Study Severe tropical cycloneDebbie

On 25 March 2017, tropical cyclone Debbie intensified and was named; by 28 March, it had further intensified to a category 4 cyclone with gusts exceeding 200 kilometres per hour when it made landfall on Queensland’s Whitsunday coast, near Airlie Beach. The peak gust recorded, and the highest wind gust recorded in Queensland, was 263 kilometres per hour near Hamilton Island (BOM 2018). Nearly 1,700 people were evacuated, more than 7,000 lost fixed-line telephone services, and more than 65,000 lost power across northern Queensland because of the cyclone and flooding (IGEM-Vic 2017). Twelve people lost their lives.

The storm tide from tropical cyclone Debbie – recorded as 2.66 metres at Laguna Quays, or 0.91 metres above the highest astronomical tide, south of the landfall (DSITI 2017) – destroyed the marina on Hamilton Island and at Shute Harbour. There were issues with the warnings on when and how to evacuate the fleet.

The Rockhampton region experienced slow-onset flooding because of heavy rainfall in the hinterland, with several locations recording close to 1,000 millimetres of rain in 48 hours (BOM 2018).

By 29 March, severe tropical cyclone Debbie had been downgraded to a severe tropical low, but it was moving south-southeast; as it passed offshore of the Gold Coast, it continued to lash coastal communities with gales and rapid-onset flooding. At its peak, 170,000 customers were without power in south-east Queensland. Torrential rain, damaging winds and flash flooding affected communities as far south as the New South Wales – Victoria border (IGEM-Qld 2017).

A total of 76,841 insurance claims were lodged, worth $1,761,595,800 (2017 dollars) – at the time, this was the 10th biggest insurance loss event in Australia (ICA 2021). The Insurance Council of Australia reported that, in areas that experienced the highest wind speeds, damage was more complex and was exacerbated by a significant proportion of homes that were not compliant with building codes, had pre-existing damage or were in a poor state of repair. The Queensland Reconstruction Authority estimated damage to infrastructure and industry of more than $1 billion, loss of approximately $0.5 billion in agriculture and a loss of coal exports worth more than $1.5 billion (IGEM-Qld 2017).

Economic assessment of the consequences of severe tropical cyclone Debbie revealed the extent to which the relatively localised direct impacts have direct and indirect impacts on other industries and regions (Lenzen et al. 2019). Although the impact was greatest in the regions directly affected, no single region of Australia was unaffected; cyclone Debbie affected about 8,500 jobs and caused a loss in added value of $2.2 billion.

Figure 2 (a) Post-event track map of severe tropical cyclone Debbie. (b) Map of levels of destruction in areas affected by severe tropical cyclone Debbie

Source: BOM (2018)

Case Study Northern Australia monsoon trough floods, 2019

In January and February 2019, a monsoon trough and embedded tropical lows delivered record-breaking rainfall across 39 local government areas (LGAs) in northern and western Queensland, totalling 56% of the state or 100 million hectares (IGME-Qld 2019). Some areas received more rain than their average annual rainfall, and there was significant flooding, impacting large areas of pastoral holdings, as well as several towns and cities.

Townsville city flooded after the event, classified as a 1-in-500- to 1-in-1,000-year occurrence, with the highest rainfall totals in the region exceeding 2,000 millimetres over 10 days. The record floods included waters released from the Ross River Dam upstream of Townsville, which peaked at 244.8% of capacity. Considerable local sentiment was expressed that the dam releases exacerbated the impacts; however, reviews by Townsville City Council and a contracted assessment by BMT Eastern Australia Pty Ltd found that the dam’s Emergency Action Plan worked, and that releases did not exacerbate – and potentially limited – flooding impacts (IGME-Qld 2019). Damage in Townsville was estimated at $600 million, 90% of which was borne by domestic customers.

Across north-western Queensland, extensive flooding in pastoral areas caused losses of 500,000 beef cattle and 30,000 sheep. Across all 39 LGAs, the estimated social and economic cost was $5.68 billion, of which $3.15 billion was direct costs (Deloitte 2019).

Flooding at this scale has enormous consequences for communities, businesses and infrastructure, but it also has significant positive events for some natural ecosystems. Floodwaters from this event reached the Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre system and filled the northern lakes, triggering massive responses in wildlife, from freshwater fish and frogs to birds. Floodwaters flowing north into the Gulf of Carpentaria also carried large quantities of organic matter and detritus, which triggered a population boom in some coastal fisheries, resulting in some compensation for hard-hit regional communities (Brown 2019).

Case Study 2016 Tasmanian floods review

After a notably dry period leading to record low water storage levels across Tasmania, a period of extended rainfall started in May 2016 that delivered more than double the normal monthly rainfall across the south, central and north-eastern parts of the state (Figure 5). This rainfall saturated soils across most of Tasmania, such that further rainfall in June rapidly resulted in run-off. Intense rain over 72 hours on 5–7 June delivered several hundred millimetres of rain, causing inundation of farmland and houses, damage to infrastructure and significant deposition of debris. A comprehensive review of the floods (Blake 2017) highlighted several contributing factors to the damage caused, acknowledging that the storm was a 1-in-100-year event.

Timber debris was recognised to be a natural feature of floods originating in forested catchments, although the presence of abandoned Managed Investment Scheme plantations contributed to the available timber debris. Drought conditions in preceding years may also have contributed to the number of dead and distressed trees at risk of mobilisation, and widespread major bushfires earlier that year led to increased run-off and erosion.

Willow trees had been introduced and planted to aid bank stabilisation in some areas. Without adequate management, these can increase in density to levels where their branch and root systems block rivers.

Drowned livestock posed an additional hazard; both sheep and cattle carcasses provided challenges for retrieval and disposal downstream for landowners.

Figure 5 Three-day rainfall totals across Tasmania, to 9:00 am on 7 June 2016

mm = millimetre

Source: Blake (2017)

Case Study 2019 Menindee fish kills

Klaus Joehnk and Tapas Biswas, CSIRO

Fish deaths are a relatively common phenomenon in Australian waterways, usually caused by low oxygen levels in low-flow waters during summer or drought conditions, blackwater events after large-scale floodplain inundation during warm-season post-drought flooding, or sediment- and ash-laden run-off after bushfires. However, the 2018–19 ‘Menindee fish kill’ event was an exception on an unprecedented scale (Sheldon et al. 2021). Although the exact number of fish killed is not known, it is estimated that more than 1 million fish died during this event. Between December 2018 and January 2019, 3 separate fish kill events occurred, with the most devastating one occurring on 5–6 January 2019 in the pool upstream of Weir 32 near the town of Menindee on the Darling River (Figure 7). The fish kill event covered a 40-kilometre stretch of the Darling River. It affected native fish, including Murray cod and golden perch, as well as invasive carp, which can survive lower oxygen levels. This event was of significant concern, with a high negative impact on local communities.

Figure 7 Fish kill in the Darling River near the Menindee Lakes, 2018–19

Photo: Graeme McCrabb

The event arose from a series of compounding events, including the low-flow conditions of the Darling River, poor water quality and a sudden change in temperature. However, there was also a history leading to these events. High-flow years in 2012 and 2016 led to an increase in fish abundance in the Menindee Lakes. Increasing drought conditions and low flow in the following years led to the draining of Lake Menindee. Fish moved into the weir pool above Weir 32, where they were trapped to some extent between Weir 32 and the upstream Menindee Main Weir, despite the presence of fishways. Furthermore, water quality deteriorated, leading to large algal blooms in the lakes and river in the months before the fish kills.

Low-flow conditions in the weir pool allowed the water column in the river reach to stratify, developing a warmer upper layer heated by the sun above a cooler lower layer, an effect commonly seen in lakes or reservoirs. Such stratification restricts oxygen exchange between the 2 layers – that is, low oxygen levels in the lower layer cannot be replenished from above. In rivers, such stratification is usually not persistent because flow will destroy it, leading to a mixed water column. However, under low-flow conditions, stratification can persist. Even then, if the air temperature falls significantly below the water temperature, typically at night, convective mixing due to cooling of the surface water will occur and, together with wind action, will mix the water column. Stratification can persist over several days when there is a long stretch of stable, warm weather with high daytime and night-time temperatures, combined with low flow. A combination of heatwave conditions and the low-flow conditions prevailed at the Menindee Lakes when the fish kills happened.

Another factor was necessary in leading to conditions that resulted in the fish kills: dissolved oxygen had to drop below a threshold to be lethal for fish – that is, the water column had to become hypoxic. Organic materials in the water column and on the riverbed are constantly decomposed by microbial action, which consumes oxygen. The sediment oxygen demand and sunken dead fish can draw down oxygen levels within a few days. Furthermore, although algae thriving in the upper water column produce oxygen during daytime via photosynthesis, they respire oxygen at night. In an ideal situation, this leads to a strong day–night cycle of oxygen saturation in the water column. In a stratified system, it leads to the lower water layer rapidly becoming hypoxic or even anoxic (no available oxygen) unless the water column is mixed. At the same time, the top water layer is well oxygenated during daytime but cannot replenish the oxygen in the bottom layer due to stratification. At night-time, the top layer loses oxygen, but levels are still sufficient for fish to survive unless the system suddenly mixes the low-oxygen top water with the anoxic bottom water, resulting in overall hypoxic conditions under which fish suffocate. Under such stratified circumstances, several potential causes for sudden mixing exist, including strong flow (which was not the case in the Darling River at the time of the fish kill), sudden high wind conditions, or a significant drop in temperature leading to convective mixing.

In the massive Menindee fish kills, drought conditions led to low or no flow, and a heatwave caused the build-up of a persistent stratification in the Menindee weir pool lasting for several days and resulting in anoxic conditions in the lower layer of the water column. On the surface, a large blue–green algae (cyanobacteria) bloom reduced night-time oxygen levels in the top layer, further aggravating the situation (see Figure 8). Finally, a sudden drop of air temperature during the night of 5–6 January (and likewise during the previous and following fish kill events) from 26–30 °C during the day to 16 °C at night, which was significantly lower than the ambient water temperature of around 28 °C, caused stratification of the water column to break down, leading to a fully mixed hypoxic water layer that triggered a fish kill.

Figure 8 Satellite image (Sentinel-2B) of the Menindee Lakes and Darling River at the time of the fish kills, 4 January 2019

Note: Menindee Lake is drained. Lake Pamamaroo and Lake Tandure shine bright green, signalling high blue–green algal content.

Source: Geoscience Australia & CSIRO Data61 (2021)

The Menindee fish kills were an extreme consequence of drought, heatwave, sudden change in weather conditions (with a significant drop in overnight temperatures) and very high blue–green algal growth. The question remains whether such events will happen in future – perhaps more often – and what can be done to reduce such adverse outcomes or even prevent them. With changing climate, drought spells and therefore low- or no-flow conditions might become more common. Intervention measures such as artificial refuges for fish and aerators, as implemented after the events, have only a local, short-term effect. Increased monitoring with in situ sensor networks and remote sensing can give early warning and provide knowledge for potential management options. Higher flows in the river channel can prevent such extreme events by reducing the risk of persistent stratification, resulting in higher oxygen re-aeration rates and reduced algal blooms. However, under drought conditions, there is only limited water available upstream to manage such situations effectively.

For further information, see AAS (2019) and Vertessy et al. (2019).

Case Study Currowan fire, New South Wales

Michele Lockwood

Heralded by a decade of increasingly dry conditions, record-breaking temperatures and 2 consecutive years of severely deficient rainfall, the Black Summer fires of 2019–20 were the result of a drastically changing climate. The early-season fires in south-east Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales were driven largely by a long period of preceding drought and strong winds, in combination with high levels of available ground fuels (Sharples 2020). These extreme conditions persisted into summer, when the second phase of fires began in south-eastern Australia in late November.

The Currowan fire, like many others of that season, was sparked by a lightning strike to a heavily forested area of the state forest, north-west of Bateman’s Bay. It ignited a blaze that burned for 74 days, across nearly half a million hectares, and was responsible for igniting the Clyde Mountain, Morton and Charleys Forest fires, ultimately destroying assets, infrastructure and habitat over 4 council regions (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

The Currowan fire and others equally devasting, including the Gospers Mountain, Green Wattle Creek and Badja Forest Road fires, resulted from complex fire behaviour associated with extreme bushfires. Sharples et al. (2016) described this phenomenon as a fire that exhibits deep or widespread flaming in an atmospheric environment conducive to the development of violent pyroconvection, often manifesting as towering pyrocumulus or pyrocumulonimbus storms. The fire thunderstorms were reported to have generated extreme winds reaching more than 80 kilometres per hour (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

This fire behaviour was notably unpredictable, making the fires difficult to control. Fires typical in the Shoalhaven–Currowan area are known to travel in a south-east direction run by north-west winds, but the 2019–20 season saw an element of change. The Black Summer Currowan fires were associated with a southerly afternoon wind. Normally, that pattern would also bring rain, but these southerly changes brought only strong, dry winds that further exacerbated the flames at rates that had never been seen before (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

Figure 11 Currowan fire aftermath, 15 January 2020

Photo: Oliver Costello

Case Study Bushfire impacts on freshwater habitats

Brendan Ebner, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University

The 2019–20 bushfires followed a period of prolonged drought but were followed by a period of above-average rainfall. This combination has exacerbated the impact of the fires on the catchments burned, as pre-bushfire populations of some species were already fragmented and isolated in drying streams; the fires themselves removed bankside vegetation and shading; and postfire erosion and run-off reduced water quality, with sediment loads rich in ash, nutrients, organics and metals.

An assessment of the Upper Murray catchment in south-eastern New South Wales and north-eastern Victoria found that nearly one-third of forested and rural regions were burned, resulting in high loads of sediment and ash entering the Murray River and Lake Hume. Sediment delivery to Lake Hume was 7 times that of the previous year, at 600,000 tonnes per month. High levels of suspended sediment caused local mortality of fish, reduced hatching success of key crustacean food sources and high mortality of freshwater snails (Joehnk et al. 2020).

Deaths were recorded in at least 27 species of fish and 4 crustacean species across 15 waterways in New South Wales and Victoria, including 11 obligate estuarine species – the first global record of bushfire impacts on water quality extending into estuaries (Silva et al. 2020). Some species were especially badly affected – in Victoria, East Gippsland galaxias (Galaxias aequipinnis) had 100% of potential habitat burnt; Yalmy galaxias (Galaxias sp. ‘Yalmy’) had 95% of its habitat within the fire extent; and roundsnout galaxias (Galaxias terenasus) had 38% of potential habitat extent burned (DELWP 2020).

Salvage collection of fish and crayfish from the wild was attempted in several jurisdictions to create captive, insurance populations. River blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus), mountain galaxias (Galaxias olidus) and spiny crayfish (Euastacus sulcatus) were collected in the Queensland headwaters of the Darling River in late 2019 and early 2020 (Ebner et al. 2020).

Figure 12 Hand-feeding river blackfish in captivity

Photo: Brendan Ebner, James Cook University

Case Study Bagia narway gabun buridja, ‘learn today from yesterday for a better tomorrow’ – Noel Butler

Noel Butler; Andrew Kaineder; Terri Janke and Gabriela Dounis, Terri Janke and Company Pty Ltd

Noel Butler is a Budawang Elder from the Yuin Nation (south coast of New South Wales). He is a qualified teacher, educator, mentor, horticulturist, chef and historian whose knowledge and resilience are exemplary. Together with his wife Trish, he runs Nura Gunyu (the Happy Camp), an organisation that delivers Aboriginal education programs – for example, bush foods, cultural knowledge walks, cultural camps and cultural awareness programs. For more than 35 years, their work has been connecting Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to culture and Country.

Noel and Trish live on a 100-acre property called Jamanee Gunya. Devastatingly, the Currowan fire of January 2020 destroyed the plants, animals and building structures on the property, deeply impacting their business and livelihood. The fire burned for 74 days through nearly half a million hectares of bushland. Before the fires, Noel and Trish had greatly nurtured the property. It was rich in bush food plants and served as the centre of their Aboriginal cultural programs. More than 50 species of birds frequently visited the place, and there were also kangaroos, wombats, wallabies and possums. The intensity of the fire was so hot that the trees exploded. It germinated seeds from deep within the soil, causing an excess of wattle (Acacia) plants to grow, disrupting the plant diversity and habitat of the understorey, and creating fuel loads for dangerous fires in the future.

Noel’s and Trish’s resilience and hard work ever since are extraordinary, including the continuation of their cultural programs. With the help of community volunteers, they have been working to build new structures and regenerate the land. There has been some great progress, with new growth and the return of animals. However, restoring the health of Country is an ongoing healing process. In the 2021 short film Mourning Country, Noel Butler says, ‘In this Country, from these fires, we have lost millions of our animals. When you think that our fauna and flora in this land is unique to the world, it could probably never be replaced to the extent that it was. That’s what I see as an incredible loss, it’s a destructive loss.’

Better land management is needed. People can learn from Aboriginal people’s knowledge and practice to restore the health of the land and prevent disasters such as these. Noel says, ‘Fire is needed, Australia is designed to burn, in small patches of land. We need the heat to crack the hard seeds. But you got to slow cool burn, to burn the debris off the ground’. He criticises the effectiveness of conventional fire methods such as hazard reduction burns, highlighting the importance of cultural burns being led by people who live on Country with a connection to, and knowledge of, the land, plants and animals in that place.

Looking after Country and connecting with culture will help to heal the land and the community. We can all manage Country together to avoid bushfires and catastrophic events in the future. Noel says there is much that Australia can learn from Indigenous fire management and biodiversity caring. He says: Bagia narway gabun buridja, ‘learn today from yesterday for a better tomorrow’ (Dhurga language of the south coast of New South Wales).

Note: Quotes from Mourning Country (Kaineder 2021).

Case Study Cultural burning for resilience – an immersive Aboriginal youth workshop

Uncle Nook/Noel Webster, Yuin cultural fire practitioner and Cultural Fire Unit, Department of Planning, Industry and Environment; and Dr Katharine Haynes, Centre for the Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub

This action research project explored the power of an immersive cultural burning workshop to increase cultural connection and wellbeing in Aboriginal youth. The workshop was held on Murramarang Country, Yuin Nation, on 1–3 June 2021. Twenty-three Aboriginal boys and girls aged 14–17 from Bomaderry, Nowra, Ulladulla and Batemans Bay high schools attended the 3-day workshop (Figure 15). The workshop was facilitated by standout young Aboriginal emerging leaders mentored by local Elders. The project was a collaboration between local Indigenous Elders and community: Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council and local Yuin cultural fire practitioners; researchers from the University of Wollongong; Treading Lightly Inc.; and Mane Collective Video Production.

The workshop used transformative and authentic learning processes to bring about positive cultural identity and resilience in Aboriginal youth. It was hands-on, enquiry-based learning that celebrates cultural fire knowledge and practice. The youth actively participated in a cultural burn over 2 days, alongside other cultural dance, art and toolmaking activities.

The research used the methodology of digital storytelling, where the young people were encouraged to reflect on their experiences and expectations before, during and following the workshop. A professional film crew assisted the participants and filmed overarching material. Young people face significant hurdles to get their voices heard and valued. In these circumstances, the use of digital storytelling is an effective way to promote young voices, to shift public debate and create more equitable outcomes.

Analysis of the digital stories and semi-structured qualitative interviews, undertaken with the youth, their teachers and workshop facilitators, demonstrated that the focus on cultural burning was a clear pathway for the youth to connect to culture and Country. The qualitative data collected revealed that the entire workshop demonstrated significant potency in empowering and engendering long-term resilience in Aboriginal youth.

Youth stated that the workshop helped them feel more connected to Country and each other, and that they had learned significantly more about their Aboriginal heritage than they previously knew and were now very motivated to learn more. They felt empowered, and had a renewed pride in their culture, and a new understanding of who they are and what their role is. Participating in the burn helped them to understand the reciprocal relationship between healthy and resilient landscapes and people. The youth felt less isolated and recognised the students from the other schools as kin.

The teachers plan to ensure that these relationships develop further. Teachers noted how attendance at school and their relationships with the students had improved. Students discussed the need to do well at school to ensure that opportunities to attend future cultural camps were offered to them. Many of the young people (teachers, facilitators and researchers too!) discussed how the atmosphere during the evening corrobboree, held on the second night of the workshop, was electric and charged with emotion – the young people described how they danced with their ancestors and felt the ongoing connection between past, present and future.

Figure 15 An immersive Aboriginal Youth Workshop, Murramarang Country, Yuin Nation, June 2021

Photo: Katharine Haynes

Overall outcomes and impact included:

  • development of a youth-led transformative learning process that supports the passing on of knowledge, and the development of positive cultural identity and resilience
  • mentoring of youth leaders and young participants, building capacity and empowering them to lead and have a voice
  • compilation of powerful digital stories on participants’ journeys of engagement with caring for Country, cultural fire knowledge and practice
  • a film screening workshop and promotion of digital stories via social media, ensuring that digital stories reach a broad audience in Australia and internationally
  • an authentic process that increases non-Indigenous people’s understanding of Indigenous ways of caring for Country for social and environmental justice.

Project team: Leanne Brook, Shane Snelson, Victor Channel, Paul Carriage – Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council; Nook Webster, Ado Webster, Jacob Morris – Yuin cultural fire practitioners; Katharine Haynes, Vanessa Cavanagh, Lisa Slater – University of Wollongong; Jamie Lepre, Tad Souden, Harrison Dwyer – Mane Collective Video Production.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to all the Murramarang and Yuin Elders, past, present and emerging, who ensured the success of the workshop, and a big thank you to all the students and teachers from Bomaderry, Nowra, Ulladulla and Batemans Bay high schools who attended and shared their enthusiasm and energy. Without the incredible young participants and their teachers, this workshop would not have been possible. The workshop was funded by a grant from the University of Wollongong Global Challenges Program and Treading Lightly Inc.

Case Study Fire management of spinifex grasslands

Gareth Catt, Harvey Murray and Chantelle Murray, 10 Deserts Project

Fire is a well-documented destructive force across Australia, although its impact in the heart of the country is poorly recognised as a result of the remote nature and low population of the deserts.

Culturally applied fire is an important part of the integrity of spinifex grasslands. Traditional and cultural burning practices have been documented through the analysis of historical aerial imagery from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as oral histories from those who grew up living a traditional life on Country. The interruption of these practices as people left their traditional lands for missions and stations left the landscape ‘lonely’. With fuel accumulating unchecked, fire size around Lake Mackay grew from an average of 34 hectares in 1953 under human occupation to 32,000 hectares in 1986 (Burrows & Christensen 1990). The size of fires tells only a small part of the story; the spatial and temporal distribution of fire across an occupied landscape varies in a way that it cannot in an unoccupied landscape.

Harvey Murray, a Traditional Owner of part of the Great Victoria Desert, talks holistically about fire in the landscape:

Fire (waru) is one of the tools Yilka ancestors used to keep country, plants and animals healthy. When we burn Country, we burn in the cooler months, in winter or early spring. If the fire is too hot it really kills the Country and takes a long time to recover. We burn the spinifex and wind grass (Aristida spp.) but not the mulga. Burning is not something you can do on someone else’s Country. This is because you might burn the wrong place. When you burn it (spinifex) all the other seeds grow; flowers and a grass, and the spinifex takes a long time to grow back. So, the other things come up first, which attracts marlu (kangaroo), karlaya (emu) and nganurti (bush turkey). That’s how you rejuvenate the Country.

The spinifex grasslands of the central and western deserts have been subject to extreme fire events following higher-than-average rainfall seasons. Unlike forests, which are most susceptible to fire following drought, grasslands become most flammable when rain brings growth.

Early 2017 brought high rainfall and growth to the Great Sandy Desert. The summer of 2017–18 saw fires that stretched from near Eighty Mile Beach in the west to the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory. The largest of these fires occurred in the heart of Ngurrara Country, with the total area burned being approximately 3.8 million hectares. This fire was close to 5 times the size of the Gospers Mountain blaze in the summer of 2019–20 that has been reported as the largest single-ignition forest fire in Australia’s history (Boer et al. 2020).

Indigenous ranger groups are seeking to intervene in this pattern of ever-increasing and extreme fire events. Their practice takes many forms, from ground-based burning using traditional techniques, through to modern practices of using satellite imagery, fire scar mapping, and aerial burning from helicopters and planes. Each technique provides varying benefits, including cultural connection to place and landscape-scale buffering of future wildfire events.

The Ngurrara rangers have been quick to respond to the catastrophic events of 2017, with rangers upskilling and employing a variety of burning tactics to buffer the landscape against future wildfires. The motivation that has come from understanding the scale of this wildfire event on their Country has galvanised the ranger team into taking action. The same can be said for their supporting organisations and, most importantly, the Elders who hold the stories for this Country. Access to remote, trackless regions is costly and difficult but provides the benefits of continued connection to place, diversification of the landscape and reduction of fire-related impacts on neighbouring parcels of land – either native title or pastoral properties.

Ngurrara ranger coordinator Chantelle Murray explained the difference between unmanaged (simplified) landscapes and managed landscapes by referencing the colours of fire scars when looking at a large map:

This area has one colour, it’s all burnt. This area has lots of colours, so lots of different fire ages. We need to make this big area more colourful like the areas to the north.

Enhancing diversity in these remote regions is the base level required for biodiversity and cultural conservation. There has been a loss or reduction of many culturally significant species. Maintaining healthy populations of those that remain through considered landscape management is crucial.

This response that the Ngurrara rangers have taken is being replicated across many parts of remote Australia. Resourcing, training and expertise are limiting factors to how well broad landscapes can be managed. Future investment in Indigenous burning practices is critical for the health of these landscapes in the face of climate change. Where market mechanisms (such as carbon credits) are not currently available, fire practice, capacity building and research must be supported equally. The health of Australia’s desert landscapes and their people is linked now, as it has been for millennia.

Figure 16 Cool burning (left) and wildfire (right), approximately 6 months after fire, Great Sandy Desert

Photos: Gareth Catt

Case Study Partnerships between researchers, Traditional Owners and practitioners to manage the Carlisle Heath

Jack Pascoe, Conservation & Research Manager, Conservation Ecology Centre

The Carlisle Heath, on the western edge of the Otway Range in Victoria, spans the junction of 3 of the Maar language groups: Gadabanud, Kirrae Whurrong and Gulidjan. It is a highly diverse ecosystem that supports populations of threatened mammal species, including long-nosed potoroos and swamp antechinus, that were impacted by the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Victoria. The Carlisle Heath has also been important habitat for ground parrots, a species identified by the Maar as significant.

The Carlisle Heath and the Anglesea Heath (on the range’s eastern flank) are not identical ecosystems; however, considerable research and management in the Anglesea Heath provides us with some insight into improving conservation outcomes. In stark contrast to the Carlisle Heath, mammal populations are in decline in the Anglesea Heath. The most significantly divergent landscape-wide impacts between the 2 regions that may help us to understand this discrepancy is the prevalence of hazard reduction burning and Phytophthora dieback. In the Anglesea Heath, there is significantly more hazard reduction burning and Phytophthora dieback is more widespread than in the Carlisle Heath.

In the past 3 years, there has been an increased focus on reducing the fuel hazard in the Carlisle Heath in response to a series of summer wildfires (see Figure 17), which threatened communities. Preliminary results of an ongoing research project found that planned burning was likely to have a devastating impact on long-nosed potoroo populations. As a result, a partnership has been formed between research institutions, conservation nongovernment organisations, Traditional Owners and land management agencies. This partnership is now investigating how planned burning will affect threatened species in the region, and how the practice can be adjusted to improve outcomes for biodiversity, cultural values and bushfire risk. The project is also looking at how fire practice can be improved to revive fire regimes that favour populations of ground parrots in the Carlisle Heath.

Without these types of partnerships between researchers, Traditional Owners and practitioners, there will likely be a continuing degradation of the natural and cultural values of these landscapes, and it is unlikely that decision-makers will recognise the damage their actions can have for Country and Traditional Owners’ cultural values.

Figure 17 Fire in the Carlisle Heath

Photo: Mark Le Pla