The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) coordinates Indigenous ranger groups who perform fire mitigation across much of the north-west of Australia, in a region almost twice the size of the state of Victoria.
But this work will not continue “with the current cost of insurance”, the document states.
The irony of insurers’ fire risk ratings preventing Indigenous management of fire is not lost on the outgoing CEO of the Kimberley Land Council, Nolan Hunter.
“Our groups can’t do fire management without insurance,” Mr Hunter said.
“It would be great if people understood that Aboriginal people are leading the way on fire management across northern Australia,” Mr Hunter said.
“Aboriginal people in Australia could have assisted in helping with the bushfires in the east.”
‘Terrible’ fire season next year
Sam Bayley has worked for Indigenous ranger groups for 15 years and is now a consultant with environmental enterprise firm Conservation Management, helping to coordinate conservation work across the Kimberley region.
He said smaller Indigenous ranger groups independent of the land council, including one he worked for, have been hit even harder by fire insurance problems.
“We were told that we weren’t covered for any fire related activity,” Mr Bayley said.
“Given the high profile of wildfires over the last couple of years, it’s just gone through the roof,” Mr Bayley said.
“It’s making it untenable for small Aboriginal corporations to undertake fire activities — which is the major part of their job.”
With northern Australia heading into a wet season, Mr Bayley said big risks will come if the insurance problem is not resolved in time for Indigenous rangers to perform fuel reduction burns early next year.
“What we’ll see after the next wet season is the build-up of a lot of fuel and a terrible fire season next year,” Mr Bayley said.
“It could have a big impact — not only on Indigenous Protected Areas and jointly-managed reserves and parks, but also on pastoral stations, infrastructure, and all kind of assets that are in the northern parts of Australia.”
Risks to wildlife
Australian Wildlife Conservancy CEO Tim Allard said there would be major implications if insurance costs prevented fire mitigation work.
“Fire is a part of the Australian landscape,” Mr Allard said.
It is used as an example of why small, early dry season fires are so important in preventing huge, hot fires that burn across the landscape.
Mr Allard said research clearly showed that the large, hot fires are bad news for native wildlife.
“It affects the smaller species like your quolls and your bandicoots and your golden-backed tree-rats,” Mr Allard said.
The ABC spoke to a pastoral representative for this story who said fire insurance was not a direct issue for pastoralists as their fuel reduction burning was done in conjunction with state fire and emergency services, and was covered by government insurance.
But the representative did say pastoralists did work with Indigenous ranger groups on fire mitigation on neighbouring public land.
Mr Allard said the insurance industry needed to understand that by increasing costs for insurance to cover the risks of controlled burning, they were greatly increasing the risk from uncontrolled burning.
“The risks you then develop through not having prescribed burning … [are] those late season wildfires that come and burn entire pastoral businesses, or entire ecological communities.”
The Insurance Council of Australia’s Campbell Fuller provided a written response to questions from the ABC, saying that bushfire caused property losses across Australia last summer, and this had increased costs for insurance companies.
“This is driving an increase in reinsurance costs, which in turn may be having an impact on premiums for some customers.”
Mr Allard said the insurance industry was not accurately measuring the risk to insurers from the successes of Indigenous ranger fire management, who he said are well trained in Western fire management techniques as well as having cultural knowledge of fire on their country.
“Insurers need to work really closely with land management organisations like Indigenous groups and Australian Wildlife Conservancy to make sure they understand the risk profile and understand how it’s mitigating the risk of late season impacts,” he said.
Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said it was aware of the problem of rising insurance premiums for ranger groups.
It said it was working with the Kimberley Land Council to explore ways to address the issue.
“DFES recognises the important role Aboriginal ranger groups play in conducting mitigation activities across the Kimberley, as well as assisting in firefighting efforts,” the department said in a statement.
The KLC’s Nolan Hunter said the effective sidelining of Indigenous management of fire on their traditional country by insurance costs is another barrier that Indigenous people will have to overcome.
“Indigenous people are significant in contributing to the management and sustainability in those areas,” Mr Hunter said.
“And fire management is just one of the ways in which we do that.”
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