Ancient rock paintings in the Kimberley damaged by WA government Fire Bombings

The Bradshaw collection of rock art, widely regarded as the oldest figurative paintings in the world, was recently damaged by fire, which locals claim was a result of the government's program

Steve Holland, Sydney Morning Herald 2 December 2014

Bradshaw Figures - East Kimberley Western Australia
The Bradshaw Figures collection has suffered fire damage. Photo: Lee Scott-Virtue SMH
Bradshaw Figures - North East Kimberley Western Australia
An original sketch of Bradshaw rock art, believed to have been produced in 1891. Photo: Grahame Walsh SMH

Fire-bombings and ground burnings by the state government are causing irreparable damage to ancient rock art and in some cases threatening lives and homes.

Fairfax Media can reveal the government fires have devastated the environment and damaged the world-renowned Bradshaw collection on the Kimberley Plateau.

Aerial fire-bombing and ground burning is ongoing in far-north Western Australia as part of the government's fire prevention strategy but the collateral damage is having a devastating impact on the region.

Traditional owner and elder Ju Ju 'Burriwee' Wilson said she was saddened to see the art and sacred works of her ancestors destroyed by the burn-offs.

"It makes me feel sad, wild, very angry," she said.

"That's beautiful art that's been damaged by fire.

"It's pretty bad, mate, the damage they do, burning by the government."

Burriwee, whose mother and grandmother would take her to see the art as a child, said she is worried her culture and heritage is being destroyed.

"They took me around when I was eight or nine," she said.

"I'm 62 and I go out and take my grandkids and show them art and tell them about the stories.

"The damage is real bad. You can't see anymore art left. The rock gets hot. The painting peels off the rock.

"I mean, God, they're history to us."

Burriwee said there were 8742 known examples of rock art in the Kimberley but their future looks bleak, with damaged sites stretching from Kununurra, along the Mitchell Plateau, across the Bungle Bungles to Faraway Bay.

"Most can't be seen any more because of the fires," she said.

For Burriwee - and many others - the land and the art have spiritual values that represent environmental phenomena, beyond the comprehension of most.

Bradshaw Figures - Kimberley Western Australia
Another example of the famous Bradshaw Figures in the North East Kimberley, Western Australia

She said the fires threatened sacred traditions, rooted in Dreamtime, which resonate with current environmental concerns.

"It's the snake, the rainbow serpent, the water python that generates the water. It's getting cooked and it moves to other places," she said.

It's not only Aboriginals who value the rock art but scientists, historians and archaeologists who value the ancient markings of early civilisation.

Archaeologist Lee Scott-Virtue has been surveying the area for 30 years, focusing on recording rock art.

"Sadly, an incredible art that should be listed at a World Heritage level and may be 40,000-plus years old - sustained for such a long period of time - is being hugely effected by the way we are managing fire," he said.

"It's having a devastating impact on the art. The burning is accelerating its demise."

Ms Scott-Virtue said her research had determined that 27 to 30 per cent of the rock art in the Bungle Bungles had already been lost.

"This rock art is critical. It has the potential to provide a real answer to the way ancestors of all of us moved across the oceans and settled in vast areas," she said.

"It could provide us with 70,000 years of answers. This heritage is critical to indigenous culture."

The Bradshaw collection of rock art, widely regarded as the oldest figurative paintings in the world, was recently damaged by fire, which locals claim was a result of the government's program.

"Two major aerial burns have occurred in this area since my first visit to the site in 2009," Ms Scott-Virtue said.

"The damage from the last fire did the most damage due to the increase in cane grass around the site and the fact that a large tree quite close to the site was burnt as well."

Emeritus Professor Jack Pettigrew, from the University of Queensland, is a biologist who believes the rock art is a valuable resource capable of unlocking scientific mysteries.

"The paintings are unmistakeable. They will blow you away," he said.

"The Bradshaws are a big mystery. The Bradshaws are alive. The original paintings have been replaced by living organisms."

Professor Pettigrew said the paintings, depicting marsupial lions and bats, giant wombats and other ancient and extinct creatures, attract tourists and scientists from around the world.

"It gives us a window on our early heritage in Australia. And the art is so good it tells you about the world ... what it was like at the time," he said.

"There are lots of potential insights - gems if you like - that are yet to be dug out.

"There's huge interest around the world in the Bradshaws ... I know many Americans who come to Australia specifically to see the Bradshaws."

But Professor Pettigrew said he too fears for the future of the unique rock art.

"It is alarming to see how much damage is being done by the current fire regime," he said.

"We were out there last year and there was beautiful patch of rainforest. It was a tributary of the Roe River. It had clearly been affected by aerial fire-bombing ... because they don't pay attention to what is on the ground."

As well as the damage to indigenous culture, scientific research and world history, others say the incendiary bombing has the potential to harm tourism.

Charlie Sharpe, 45, owner and operator of Lake Argyle Tours and Lake Argyle Resort and Caravan Park, has witnessed the gradual destruction of ancient rock art by the government's bushfire strategy.

He said nine out of 10 fires sparked by the state government in the region burn out of control, sometimes for weeks.

"It's a misinformed bushfire strategy," he said.

Mr Sharpe said he took his son to a collection of rock art off Lake Argyle Road, in far north WA near the Northern Territory border, in early November and was disappointed to discover it had been damaged.

"Ten years ago they were visible and now they're pretty well non-existent," he said.

"In the past 10 years the degradation has been astonishing. I had to trace it with my finger for my son to see it.

"You wouldn't take a tourist there because it's gone forever.

"They're trying to preserve the unnatural landscape and in the process they are destroying what nature has given us."

Kimberley residents told Fairfax Media the damage caused by the burning was also having a detrimental impact on the environment, causing erosion and pollution to run into water systems.

Others said encroaching fires, sparked by prescribed burnings, caused them to fear for the safety of their homes and lives.

On Faraway Bay, in WA's far north, an investigation is being conducted by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services after a recent fire alarmed locals.

Residents in the vicinity of the fire thought their property would burn down and feared for their safety, according to sources.

They say the fires were lit despite warnings it was a risky operation.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services would not say when the findings would be released.

Prescribed burnings across the Kimberley are conducted by the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, often in conjunction with Aboriginal rangers.

Parks and Wildlife was sent several questions on November 24 in relation to the fires, including a request for a response to allegations that the department's fire prevention strategy was poorly conceived, negligent and mismanaged.

They have refused to comment.