'Like a morgue': Report finds government burn did not go to plan

WARNING – DISTRESSING CONTENT: Authorities have admitted their prescribed burn which incinerated wildlife and is alleged to have destroyed endangered numbat habitat “did not meet the objectives” of its plan.

Described as “catastrophic” by locals, the high-intensity burn, lit by Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity (DBCA) on March 25, charred almost 1900 hectares of forest in Perup, 300km south of Perth.

Bushland which was once teeming with animals, is now almost devoid of life according to a farmer whose property borders the forest.

The prescribed burn at Perup in Western Australia is now complete. Source: Darryn Ward
An investigation into the prescribed burn at Perup in Western Australia is now complete. Source: Darryn Ward

Looking over his fence at the devastation, Bill Smart told Yahoo News Australia that despite some leaves sprouting again, fire has gutted wildlife hollows that took centuries to develop, and killed animals which lived in them.

“(The bush) is recovering cosmetically, but the damage is done, it's silent in there,” he said.

“It’s like a morgue, it’s shocking. I hate going in there actually.”

Kangaroos left with severe burns for weeks after Perup fire

Months after the fire, Mr Smart continues to find charred bones of marsupials around the forest.

On Tuesday, he photographed a newly deceased kangaroo joey on this land which is missing several toes and appears to have scarring on its feet.

A kangaroo lying on its side with burnt feet after the Perup fire. Source: Bill Smart
A number of kangaroos were euthanised after their feet were badly burned by the fires. Source: Bill Smart

The find has brought back heartbreaking memories of the days which followed the fire, when Mr Smart tried to get assistance for injured wildlife, but could find no one to help.

Kangaroos with severe burns on their feet languished for three weeks without treatment after the Perup blaze was lit and were only assessed after he alerted Yahoo News Australia about their plight.

Wildlife group FAWNA were the first to render assistance. Three of the marsupials were immediately euthanised, two were assessed to have “minor injuries” and left for observation, while one joey was recovered and sent into care.

Close up of a dead joey's feet.
Mr Smart was left saddened after finding a dead kangaroo on his property this week with missing toes. Source: Bill Smart

DBCA did not respond to a question about why it took so long for them to assess the animals, but in an indication of how extreme the fire was, they added it is “extremely rare” to receive reports of injured kangaroos after burns.

With the department set to conduct further burns in the region, Mr Smart remains concerned that mistakes will be repeated.

Independent investigation to determine fire's impact on wildlife

After reviewing their conduct, DBCA, which uses adaptive management as part of its process, said this week underlying dryness in parts of the burn area likely contributed to the intensity of the fire.

“DBCA accepts that the burn did not meet the objectives of the burn plan and has identified a number of actions for improvement,” they said in a statement on Tuesday.

“This includes altering ignition patterns and considering commencing burns on the lower half of the prescribed Forest Fire Index for areas with high fuel loads (12+ years), and enhancing processes associated with post burn success criteria assessment.”

While the DBCA’s internal review is now complete, Humane Society International is set to begin its own “detailed investigation” into burning practices in southwestern Australia.

A shot showing a tiny numbat surrounded by smoke in Perup. Inset is a close-up of the numbat.
A numbat was seen fleeing the fire. Source: Bill Smart

The animal welfare charity’s head of programs Evan Quartermain told Yahoo News Australia the project will examine the toll on wildlife and determine whether changes in the department's process need to be made.

“The purpose of these prescribed burns is supposedly to mitigate the severity of bushfires and maintain biodiversity, which is particularly important with southwest Western Australia being a global biodiversity hotspot,” he said.

“But what happened in the Perup fire suggest the department’s prescribed burning program could be doing the exact opposite, with serious animal welfare concerns on top of the biodiversity risks.”

'Sightings can be scarce': Fate of endangered numbats remains unknown

Environmentalists remain worried about the fate of Perup’s numbats, a species which the IUCN estimates number 800 mature individuals in the wild.

Despite once being widespread across the state, they now survive in just two strongholds, of which Perup’s 56,000 hectare reserve is one.

Two images of bones found after the fire in Perup.
Mr Smart has found the bones of a number of animals in the forest after the fire, including the skull of a brushtail possum (see inset). Source: Bill Smart

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan responded to concerns about the fate of area’s numbats in May, saying he was advised by the department there is no evidence any were “killed or affected” during the burn.

DBCA maintain that efforts were made to protect the animal’s homes and this involved “raking and wetting” the surrounding area, and marking their dens with tape.

Despite reporting sightings of numbats “before, during and after the burn”, a department spokesperson would not elaborate on whether this includes any animals other than three seen on March 25 and 26 - the day of and the day after the fire.

They added that "given the elusive nature of the species, sightings can be scarce" and that the burn is not believed to have impacted overall numbat population numbers.

Two images of numbat habitat burnt by the fires. There are notes from Mr Smart at the bottom of the images.
Mr Smart has been documenting the damage done to numbat hollows by the fire. Source: Bill Smart

Photos taken by Mr Smart show a numbat caught in a smoke haze after the fire was lit, and melted tape fixed to a tree opposite a burnt numbat habitat log.

Having found numerous bones in the forest, including the skull of a brushtail possum, he fears the numbats which live near his property may have also died.

Mr Quartermain said HSI is looking forward to getting to “the bottom of the issue”.

“The DBCA say that there’s no evidence species like numbats have been harmed, but with the images I’ve seen and people I’ve spoken to on the ground over there I’m taking that claim with a grain of salt,” he said.

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