The Gooniyandi/Ngurrara Rangers combine traditional knowledge and modern bushfire science to manage wildfire. (Supplied: Kimberley Land Council)
Indigenous ranger groups in the north of Western Australia will have to stop their bushfire suppression work at the end of June unless a solution can be found to a more-than-doubling of fire insurance premiums in the space of a year.
The Kimberley Land Council helps manage this work across a region almost twice the size of the state of Victoria, but the organisation's land and sea unit manager Will Durack said the work would stop at the end of June if a solution to the jump in insurance costs could not be found.
"We are still talking about sums of money that are not figures that we can finance," Mr. Durack said
"For local people in the Kimberley, for the broader WA community, and then for the nation, the service that is provided is essential."
Aboriginal rangers manage fire across hundreds of thousands of kilometres of northern Australia, conducting fuel reduction burns shortly after the wet season, and then fighting wildfires later in the dry season.
Mr. Durack said the work came with inherent but manageable risks, for which public liability insurance was essential.
"If we've got insurance, it won't pose an issue. We will continue to do our jobs, and our job in the dry season is suppression, is putting people into Country to put out fire," he said.
"[But] if we burn something down and we don't have insurance, then we bankrupt the organisation."
He said there could be severe consequences if Indigenous fire management could not continue.
"By us putting in a fire early in the dry season, you mitigate against that large, uncontrolled fire," he said.
"So, people are at risk. People's lives will be at risk of large, [ with] uncontrolled fires as we've seen in other places."
Mr. Durack said larger, and unmanaged fires also increased risks to the environment and the economy of the region,
"Without running an early season program, we will change the landscape. You will burn it too often and too hot," he said.
"A lot of the work we do protects against late-season fire running into pastoral properties, so [there would be] significant economic impact."
Tarred with the same brush
The hike in insurance costs threatening Indigenous bushfire mitigation stems in part from the Black Summer bushfires, which also ironically resulted in some calls for increased use of Indigenous fire management practices.
Indigenous rangers have increasingly managed bushfires in the Kimberley over the last decade, and Mr. Durack said this had demonstrated the benefits of this practice.
"We've seen a significant shift in that time because of putting fire into the landscape early in the year when you don't get these massive, uncontrolled fires that sweep through the landscape," he said.
The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) declined to respond to the ABC for this article but provided written answers to questions last October saying that the perception of risk from bushfire was driving increased costs in insurance.
"Australia is seen by reinsurers as a high-risk jurisdiction for natural disasters and for liability products," the ICA said at the time.
"This is driving an increase in reinsurance costs, which in turn may be having an impact on premiums for some customers."
Mr. Durack said this perception was based on higher risk areas in Australia's southern eucalypt forests, which were not comparable to northern Australia where a regular wet season and tropical savannahs were more easily managed.
He said the real risk for insurers would come if Indigenous rangers were prevented from conducting fire suppression work.
"If we don't do our jobs then they will be faced with more claims from property owners, from tourist ventures because infrastructure has been burnt down because of the large late-season fires," he said.
"The Insurance Council needs to educate itself, and the insurers, about the positive benefit the work we do has with the mitigation it creates for the insurance companies."
Western Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said in a statement that it would be meeting with the ICA to try to find a resolution to the issue.
"DFES has a long history of working with local Aboriginal ranger groups and recognises the important role they play in mitigating bushfire risk across Western Australia," the statement said.
"It is hoped that the department can offer the ICA an insight into the importance of having additional providers who can help to reduce the bushfire risk."
An alternate solution could be an increase in the funding for Indigenous ranger groups which largely comes from the Federal Government's National Indigenous Australians' Agency (NIAA).
Mr. Durack said that a funding-based solution was not looking likely.
"When you think about insurance, most people switch off," he said.
"It's not the really glamorous side of Indigenous land management … and people don't like to fund that stuff. They like to fund the shiny stuff."
The NIAA said in a statement it would consider insurance costs in the next grant round but noted there was a "limited funding pool."
"The NIAA will continue to work with lead Commonwealth and state government agencies, and the Insurance Council of Australia to raise the issue and progress the discussions," the statement said.
In the meantime, the Kimberley Land Council is counting the days left before a looming deadline.
"At the moment we're insured until the end of the financial year. We'll come to a crunch point on July 1 when we need to understand whether or not we've been able to sort out this issue," Mr Durack said.
"If we don't have insurance, we won't be able to do that work."