Australian landscapes have been shaped by fire. Wildfire destroys some ecosystems. Others thrive on it. With predictions of climate change giving us more hot, dry days, how do we prepare and keep safe? Mareeba Shire fire managers, landholders, and Traditional Owners share their ideas with our Fire Project Officer Jackie McLeod.
by Chelsea Reventos Smith photos and video by Wayne Derksen
For Astro Brim (pictured above), hazard reduction burns help protect and heal Country from wildfires that spread to the tree canopy. Astro is one of five Buluwai Rangers. He says a hot canopy fire has major negative impacts. “It destroys the country, kills the wildlife, and it puts people at risk. Our aim is to grow that ranger group. We encourage younger generations to learn this knowledge about fire, about Country and preservation. It’s important to have training. It gives us the chance to work with firies and stakeholders, and also they can work with us to create this relationship that Country really needs to stay healthy and to protect it. Fire is for the people. We’ve got a saying – healthy Country. Healthy people.”
Ryan and Rachel Gunderson moved to their Dimbulah property four years ago, where they commercially grow limes and passionfruit as WRG Produce. Their 105-acre property has a creek on one side, neighbours all around, a channel from Tinaroo Dam, and a main road right through the middle, which increases the risk of arson and accidental fires.
In 2019, Ryan was in the paddock, picking fruit, when he saw smoke. Within 15 minutes, fire was on their property. “Inside an hour, the whole place was pretty much alight,” Ryan said. It took out a new irrigation system and 20 per cent of their orchard. “Luckily, we had help from all our neighbours turning up, the fire brigade, and there was a helicopter here at the time that was bombing it.”
Ryan fought the fire while Rachel protected the house and kept the firefighters fed and watered. “We had four or five other ladies from around town come into the house to help make sandwiches, cutting up fruit, sending them out to the blokes.” Rachel could see smoke everywhere. She prepared food, moved sprinklers, checked on animals, watched for sparks. “I was around seven or eight months pregnant. Running around checking everything, the fear of losing my house sent me into early contractions.” With fire still nearby, an ambulance took Rachel to hospital to ensure the safety of baby Laine.
Ryan stayed to fight the fire, a difficult decision, but later joined Rachel at hospital while people stood watch on their property all night, making sure all was well. Rachel and Ryan protect their property from future fires by slashing fire breaks, mowing and watering. They use a loader and grader, keep the place tidy, and always have two firefighting setups ready to go. But the biggest lesson of 2019, says Ryan, is the power of relationships. “It’s really important to have good communication with your neighbours. We would have probably lost our whole farm if it wasn’t for everyone in the community that came and helped us that day.”
Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary is as diverse as it is vast. Covering just over 59,000 hectares, Brooklyn contains a range of different ecosystems. Mountains blanketed in world heritage Daintree rainforest, sprawling eucalypt woodlands, Mitchell River floodplains, and more. Over 50 threatened plants and animals are found here, including the Southern Cassowary, Torrent Tree Frog, and Yellow-Bellied Glider. And it contains the townships of Maryfarms and Mount Carbine.
All this combines to make for complex fire management. The various ecosystems require different responses, and the townships must be kept safe. The Mulligan Highway cuts right through Brooklyn, making an easy ignition point for fires caused by discarded cigarettes or arson.
Andrew Francis, Brooklyn property manager of ten years, was in charge of fire management. Along with technology like the Northern Australian Fire Information website, and fine-scale mapping produced by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Andrew shares a few things that help.
Grader “It means we can burn later in the year a lot easier. That’s helped tremendously, to be able to burn off a graded break.”
Good neighbours “Where we’re burning against someone’s paddocks and houses, extra people on board really helps. We support the local fire brigade and they in turn assist us. Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to do it so successfully. We’ve been doing roadside burning with Main Roads. That has reduced our roadside arson or incidental ignitions nearly totally.”
Being adaptable “Every year is different, and you’ve just got to roll with it.”
Barry “Baz” Child is First Fire Officer for the Kuranda/Myola Rural Fire Brigade and Fire Warden for Flaggy Creek. He works hard to keep landholders informed about fire management in their area. He’s passionate about working with, and giving back to, community.
“Volunteerism is about the pure joy and pleasure from giving and caring for people. I’ve rocked up to blocks where fire is coming, and I’ve got panicked owners. What a wonderful feeling to be able to say, ‘It’s okay. We’re here now.’”
Janette Hodgkinson has been in the Irvinebank Rural Fire Brigade for more than 20 years. She’s Secretary/Treasurer and Second Officer. And Janette is the Volunteer Community Educator, a role that has her working directly with people doing education and outreach. She keeps people informed about fires in the area, and helps ensure families and their properties are prepared for fire season.
Simple measures are so effective, like checking gutters are clear of leaves, and vegetation near the house is not overgrown. “The reason I wear so many hats, I suppose, is because I love doing what I’m doing and love helping the community in any way.”
Janette’s dedication, knowledge, and community spirit is an asset in Irvinebank, an old tin-mining town at the end of 14 kilometres of corrugated dirt road. “The red fire trucks cannot access us very much. We’re sort of self-sufficient. When we’ve got a fire in the hills, we’ve got to look after ourselves before we can get resources in, and that can be up to two hours. Our truck is always ready to go. Normally we try and manage fire ourselves. We might get the neighbouring brigades, Watsonville and Walsh River. But sometimes it gets a bit bigger and we need to call in reinforcements.”
In a remote community, banding together to deal with crisis is a necessity. The Irvinebank Rural Fire Brigade leads by example.
Brittany Butler is a Yirrganydji woman and a ranger with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Brittany uses a Kestrel fire weather metre to monitor air humidity, temperature, and wind speed every two hours during controlled burns.
“It’s good to see the weather change all throughout the day. That helps explain the fire’s behaviour.”
At Mount Molloy, the community works together to be ready for fire. Watch our video as John and Julia Colless, and Bill McKerlie, share their thoughts on how they do it.