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Burning bright: cultivating Australia's unique ecosystems through strategic savanna burning
30 August 2023

Burning bright: cultivating Australia's unique ecosystems through strategic savanna burning

6 minute read
Project stories
Shanti Mors
Shanti Mors Head of Climate Projects, Commercial - Australia & NZ
Helga Carroll-Himberg Senior Marketing Specialist, Climate Projects - APAC

Deep in the Australian Outback, where the rugged landscapes are as breathtaking as they are vulnerable, landowners like the Kingsley family at Mt Mulgrave Station in Far North Queensland face a challenge now experienced in many parts of the world: frequent and intense, uncontrolled wildfires.

Now, more often than before, summer headlines are dominated by news of devastating wildfires. These fires are escalating annually in terms of magnitude and severity;their persistence is due to various factors, with climate change–such as more periods of drought– a significant contributor. These flames are not localised, ravaging both the northern and southern hemispheres; it is clear that this is a global issue, affecting multiple regions worldwide. Back in Australia, the Kingsley's have decided to take action and fight fire with fire to protect their land, the wildlife that depends on it and their livelihood.

Mt Mulgrave Station has been a sprawling family-owned cattle station spanning thousands of acres for over four decades. The station lies approximately 100 km north of Chillagoe and 200 km west of Cairns, spanning an area of 280,728 hectares (a football field, for a sense of scale, is equivalent to one hectare). This means the property's size is roughly equivalent to that of Adelaide or the countries of Luxembourg or Samoa.

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Howard Kingsley showing the map of their Mt Mulgrave property

Witnessing just a fraction of their vast property makes you astounded to think there are several significantly larger stations in Australia. According to the station owner, Howard Kingsley, theirs is one of the few remaining family-owned stations in the country, making them exceptional in an era where large corporations dominate.

Managing the Australian Savanna to maintain a healthy land

Intense wildfires can inflict substantial damage on savanna ecosystems: they instantly disrupt the ecosystem's natural equilibrium and its resilience. This happens as the intense fires burn the grass-dominated understory vegetation and blacken the soil surface. Controlled burns, on the other hand, which the Kingsleys operate as part of a fire management emission reduction project on their property, help reduce the fuel load by burning off the excess vegetation on the ground, promoting healthier vegetation growth underneath. This helps protect their land from wildfires and generate additional income, separate from the cattle they run on their land. In November 2015, they secured a contract with the Australian Government's Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) and have since been generating carbon credits utilising the Savanna Fire Management Methodology.

Under the ERF methodology, various project types can generate Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) for their efforts to avoid or reduce emissions. The fire management method uses fire management techniques that reduce the risk of wildfires. The planned burnings occur in the early-dry season between January and July, aiming to reduce the frequency and intensity of uncontrolled late-dry season wildfires. Such wildfires commonly occur throughout the north of Queensland and other parts of Australia, such as the Northern Territory.

Mr Kingsley says fires sparked by lightning occur frequently every year. Without implementing controlled burns, there is the potential for significant damage not only to their property but also to the local flora and fauna. Intense wildfires are a reason for some wildlife to vanish from an area completely: the flames destroy the habitat, food sources and the breeding sites crucial for their survival. When a wildfire breaks out and gets out of control, the Kingsleys create fire breaks to mitigate its destructive impact. These breaks not only safeguard their own property, but also serve to shield neighbouring properties from the fire's spread.

At present, the ERF method serves as the only fire management method globally, though an international alternative that can be applied in other countries is under development by VERRA.

Specialised equipment and skills to do their job

Managing a vast property like Mt Mulgrave Station and performing savanna fire management activities requires a diverse set of skills and tools. The immense size of the property means that helicopters play a crucial role in its management: Howard Kingsley and his two sons all possess extensive experience as trained helicopter pilots, and their helicopters serve the unique dual purpose of mustering cattle across the property and carrying out controlled fire setting. To streamline this task, they recently purchased a Raindancer machine that sits in one of their helicopters and releases small capsules which emit sparks through a chemical reaction.

But it's not just an aerial task - the Kingsleys are often on the ground, too. In a smaller area, they use a drip torch to light spot fires within an area; this activity has a limited range and is quite labour-intensive, but it can be an effective tool in certain areas. Knowing which land areas to burn is a skill in itself, despite modern technology providing assistance. After decades of tending to their property, the Kingsleys have gained a detailed knowledge of every nook and cranny, and every river and hill on their property, which is a critical asset for this undertaking.

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The Raindancer: a highly specialised piece of equipment which is one of the most recent purchases by the Kingsleys

While their efforts to reduce the fuel for fires in the cool season is critical, the Kingsleys don't stop there. As part of their firefighting responsibilities during the dry season, they actively create firebreaks with the assistance of front-end loaders. These strategically planned and maintained firebreaks act as protective barriers, preventing the spread of massive fires and safeguarding the land and its surroundings.

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A significant portion of the savanna burning operations is carried out with helicopters. Howard Kingsley provides insights into their work with helicopters to South Pole’s Senior Business Development Manager, Shanti Mors

Reducing emissions, protecting wildlife, and earning additional income for the family business

The Mt Mulgrave project effectively avoids or minimises the carbon emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere if wildfires were to occur. As a result, the Kingsleys can earn ACCUs for the avoided emissions, which can then be sold via the Voluntary Carbon Market to organisations seeking to compensate for their own emissions.

The sale of credits generates additional income for the business. The added income enables the Kingsleys to invest in upgrading their expensive specialised machinery, significantly enhancing their land management capabilities.

The project's benefits extend beyond the financial gains and provide additional co-benefits for the environment, too. Plant and animal populations are better protected as they are not all wiped out during high-intensity fires. Low-intensity fires are easier to recover from and have a smaller impact on food availability and reproduction. The Kingsleys also take active measures to eliminate feral animals, such as wild pigs, that pose a significant threat to the ecosystem.

By employing these comprehensive approaches and utilising a combination of tools, machinery, and aerial support, the Kingsleys exhibit their dedication to effective fire management, environmental conservation, and sustainable land practices on Mt Mulgrave Station. While they're busy doing this, South Pole takes care of the necessary administrative tasks, allowing Kingsley to concentrate on implementing the project on the ground.

Mt Mulgrave is a great example of the role that Australia's agricultural sector can play in driving sustainable practices, reducing emissions, and safeguarding the planet.

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