Until recently, retired farmer Bill Smart loved wandering in to forest bordering his Perup property and getting up close to our State mammal emblem, the Numbat.
“They’re just the most magical little animals,” enthuses Bill, 68, who’s lived in the area, east of Manjimup, for three decades.
“Sometimes if you look at them you can get close and take photos; other times they just dart off.”
With less than 2000 of these unique WA marsupials left in the wild, Bill has always felt privileged to be able to spot them so regularly.
But that all changed on March 25, after a “disastrous” prescribed burn organised by WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions which fast became a towering inferno. Bill watched, horrified, as fire bomb after fire bomb was hurled from a hovering helicopter, razing close to 1900 hectares.
The resulting inferno meant few native animals could escape, says Bill, who watched the sky-high flames in disbelief.
Along with kangaroos, reptiles and birds, “I estimate 50 to 100 numbats were burned to death,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion.
Since then, Bill hasn’t seen a single Numbat in the bushland. The colony he’d come to love has been decimated.
He was gobsmacked when Premier Mark McGowan later said there was “no evidence” any Numbat had perished.
“How he can say that without even visiting the area is unfathomable,” says Bill. “I’ve lost a lot of respect for our Premier over this.”
The Starfish contacted Bill after he’d spoken publicly about the carnage. It’s thanks to him we know about this environmental disaster.
Bill says he’d urged DBCA officials to get the prescribed burn right and protect the Numbats. Sadly, his efforts were in vain. The public are now learning what occurred in one of the only remaining places on earth where this astonishing marsupial, so near extinction, was living and breeding.
Prior to the burn, Bill reveals, he’d gone to the trouble of showing a DBCA rep “where the Numbats lived, what hollow logs to watch out for and what areas to avoid burning.”
But though the rep took note, to Bill’s horror, nothing was spared in the ensuing inferno; all but one of the logs he pointed out was destroyed in the flames.
“I always used to be supportive of prescribed burns. But the way this was carried out was so wrong. It should have been done gently, by hand, on separate lots, one at a time. Not with fire bombs hurled from helicopters. Animals simply can’t escape. With a natural bushfire, animals always have an escape route. But this fire was monumental and all-encompassing. The animals just perished.”
Devastated at the annihilation, Bill contacted the DBCA and says the officer manager he spoke to “admitted there’d been a stuff-up and said they learned from their mistakes,” he says.
“I asked him, ‘Do you even go and look at what you’ve done afterwards, at the damage down?’ He said they just drive round the outside. Well from there, it looks OK – you can’t see anything much from the outside!”
But this alarming and tragic story of how our State lets down its native animals doesn’t end here. Bill is now worried that more Numbats are at risk from pending prescribed burns.
“There are other burns coming up soon, which is very worrying. There’s a planned burn in the heart of the Tone-Perup Nature Reserve; it’s an area referred to as Don_123. It has probably the largest population of unenclosed numbats on the planet. I’m now desperately concerned about these little guys.”
“Look, if the DBCA don’t change tactics and start burning by hand, and checking along the way, the Numbats are doomed.”
Bill’s still scratching his head at Mark McGowan’s proclamation that there was “no evidence that any Numbats were killed or affected and that measures were put in place to protect them.”
“Who gave him that advice? Why doesn’t he come down and see for himself? If he came down here and looked at the sight of devastation, there’s no way he, or anyone else, could say that,” says Bill.
A DBCA spokesperson told the ABC all known numbat dens identified prior to the burn were protected, and that the Perup burn was done at a time when young numbats were mature enough to access refuge areas.
Wrong again, says Bill.
“This is the time when the mothers have their tiny babies clinging to their bodies. Those mums and babies would have all perished. What’s just happened is an environmental disaster.”
With an internal review of the fire to be completed later this month, many conservationists are calling for a thorough investigation into prescribed burning in WA.
Fire And Biodiversity Western Australia, contactable on Facebook, is a group established to reduce the impact of prescribed burning to our State’s unique flora and fauna.
It has called for the current practice of prescribed burning and fire management in the south-west to be improved.
For more information visit Fire and Biodiversity Western Australia on Facebook:
You can email WA Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson at Minister.Sanderson@dpc.wa.gov.au
Another burn is proposed at nearby DON_123 in the near future. Numbats are also found in this area. Have your say in stopping this action.