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Data informs fire management priorities in the Kimberley

08 May. 2022
Martin Willis/AWC

By Dr Skye Cameron, Regional Ecologist and Aled Hoggett, Regional Operations Manager 

Effective fire management is a primary focus of AWC’s operations. AWC’s approach to conservation in the Kimberley, in particular fire management, operates at a landscape scale, crosses many tenure boundaries, and involves numerous partners and stakeholders. However, unlike other areas of Australia, ecosystems in the Kimberley do not currently have ecologically mapped classifications. A lot is known about species diversity and ecological characteristics but there is no agreed and structured approach to mapping such attributes and how this can inform fire management.

Since 2016, the area in which AWC is involved in fire management in the Kimberley has expanded rapidly. AWC now operates the Ecofire program (early dry season (EDS) prescribed burning to promote a mosaic of vegetation of different ages and reduce the extent and intensity of late dry season (LDS) wildfires) across 6.1 million hectares, on AWC sanctuaries and in collaboration with Indigenous partners and neighbouring pastoral stations. Furthermore, AWC and our partners also respond to LDS wildfires in the Kimberley across 4.3 million hectares. AWC’s fire management resources are finite and maximising the efficiency of their deployment is key to optimising conservation and ecological outcomes.

An example of a cool, slow burn undertaken to protect infrastructure at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley. Joseph Porter/AWC

The challenge for AWC has been to develop and build a science-informed tool that:

  • covers 4.3 million hectares of AWC’s area of involvement  
  • incorporates available ecological information and survey data of threatened, endemic or fire-sensitive species relevant to fire management
  • is conceptually simple and uncluttered
  • most importantly, can be used as a transparent, communicable and structured decision-making framework, to prioritise the deployment of fire management resources across multiple tenures and ensure protection of high priority ecological assets.

To achieve this a framework was developed to map Ecological Priority Zones (EPZ) across sanctuaries and partnership areas as a tool to support fire management decision making. The objective of this framework was to score high (EPZ 1) to low (EPZ 5) priority zones across the management areas based on ecological values and assets, prioritising areas and species negatively impacted by wildfires. This was achieved by breaking each management area into segments representing ecological features, vegetation and habitats relevant to fire management. Each segment was assessed against the EPZ Framework, consisting of two stages:

Stage 1 – an initial decision tree to assess key values.  

Stage 2 – further evaluation through the EPZ categorisation assessment.

EPZ Data
Ecological Priority Zone mapping for Mornington–Marion Downs Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tableland Partnership Area. Coloured dots represent survey data collected across the region since 2004, used to inform the decision tree and categorisation assessment to determine priorities. AWC

Reflecting AWC’s mission to conserve all Australian animal species and the habitats in which they live, the first stage of the EPZ evaluation was to assess critical ecological values; specifically the presence of endangered species (EPBC, BCA, IUCN), threatened ecological communities, range restricted endemic species or rainforest. Rainforests were included in the initial assessment due to their importance as refuge sites for threatened species and sensitivity to impacts from fire. The presence of these critical ecological values resulted in segments with an EPZ score of one, the highest ranking. The absence of these values directed evaluation of a segment to Stage 2, an EPZ categorisation assessment. Categorisation is based on identifying other ecological values important to consider in relation to fire management – for example fire sensitivity of fauna and/ or flora, vegetation age and complexity of vegetation age mosaics – and weighting values depending on relative importance. Ultimately, each segment gained an EPZ score between one and five.

Gouldian Finch Martin Willis/AWC
AWC’s Ecological Priority Zone Framework incorporates critical ecological values, such as the presence and distribution of threatened species like the endangered Gouldian Finch, into the allocation of resources in fire management.

The EPZ Framework has now become an integral part of fire operations in the Kimberley, with our partners’ endorsement. AWC has used the EPZ Framework in 2020 and 2021 as a key decision-making tool to coordinate and guide both the EDS prescribed burning program and, importantly, LDS wildfire suppression activities. As an example, if there are multiple wildfires burning across the 4.3 million-hectare management area, the EPZ Framework identifies where and how AWC and our partners direct people and helicopters, and the level of investment made to prevent further spread of a destructive wildfire. The development of a transparent, communicable, and structured decision-making framework has enabled a more comprehensive and strategic approach to fire management in the region, ensuring that AWC directs resources and effort to conserve the Kimberley’s high priority ecological assets.

 

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