The phone call came as a surprise. An aerial burning team was short a safety crew in the helicopter. Could I jump in the back seat?
I’d never done the job before. I’m the guy who helps pay for the aerial burning, I don’t do it, but I knew the fire ecologists were in a race against time.
There’s a window of just a few weeks maximum on the Dampier Peninsula when it’s possible to carry out prescribed burning. Too wet and the bush won’t burn. Too dry and you’ve got an out-of-control inferno on your hands. You also need enough dew in the evenings to extinguish the fires plus perfect winds - strong enough to keep the flames burning and in the right direction to move them away from protected areas.
There was no time to waste, especially not this year. The Peninsula was so dry last year, the rangers could only burn a tiny area. As if matters couldn’t get any worse, a big wet season had left us with more grass than normal. In one of the most fire-prone regions on Earth , one lightning strike could spell disaster.
I’ve taken part in land-based burns so I know it’s an exact science and have the utmost respect for the Indigenous rangers and fire ecologists who carry it out. But sitting in that helicopter, watching them constantly checking the fire history of the area on their computer and carefully constructing a mosaic of burn scars, that respect only soared.
A big part of my job is to work to protect the habitat of a precious little colony of rare Gouldian finches living in the area. Fire would spell disaster for them, destroying the old trees whose hollows they breed in as well the the grass seeds they need to feed on.
As we flew over, I scrutinised their habitat, communicating with the Kimberley Land Council’s fire ecologist, Richard Whatley, about high conservation values areas that needed a burn-scar barrier. I also did my job as Safety Officer – keeping a close eye on the beautifully named 'Raindance' machine, which is used to shoot out the large Panadol-sized balls of incendiary material. We wanted fires on the ground not in the air!
The chopper pilot was exceptional, allowing Richard to fire incendiaries every 200 meters in a perfectly judged line. Thirty minutes later, when we flew back over, the ripple of flames was still moving in that perfect line, the wind gently pushing it along until a scar was formed.
By the time we arrived back at the airport – we'd covered much of the north Dampier Peninsula. Hopefully it will be enough to save the habitat of the Gouldian finch – and all other woodland species up there - for another year.