Tropical Savannas CRC > Achievements > Innovative solutions

Innovative Solutions for Managing Savannas

 A wildfire spreads through sandstone habitat on the West Arnhem Plateau

Destructive wildfires have been plaguing the Arnhem Land plateau

Savanna land managers often face challenges with limited resources, and with no ready-made solutions that can be shipped in from other parts of the country. The Tropical Savannas CRC (TS-CRC) has helped these land managers develop their own solutions.

For example, the Indigenous communities of West Arnhem Land have developed an innovative solution to the problem of frequent wildfire that has plagued that region in recent decades – and the TS-CRC played a key role in its development.

By the late 20th century, with few people living on the West Arnhem Plateau and plenty of grassy fuel growth during the northern wet season, wildfires would start in the hot, dry time of the year (September – December) and sweep across the plateau with little to stop them. Such frequent fires were damaging many cultural and natural values of the plateau including art sites and biodiversity of world significance.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous people would burn the plateau regularly for various purposes, resulting in a mosaic of differently burnt areas across the landscape – which would pull up wildfires in their tracks as the burnt areas contained less grass to burn. The Indigenous communities of the region were concerned at the damage being done to the plateau by the frequent wildfires and wanted to re-introduce these traditional burning practices, but this was difficult with so few people living on the plateau.

To overcome this problem, Indigenous Ranger groups and western scientists developed techniques for managing fire on the plateau that used a combination of traditional knowledge and skills and western science and technology. This “two tool kit” approach saw Indigenous Rangers using helicopters to implement fire breaks rapidly across large areas of country, but also using their own intimate knowledge of the country on how to place the burns. In this way they complementing the aerial burning with on-ground fire management. The Tropical Savannas CRC helped researchers provide practical advice and products like satellite maps of fire activity and a website that displayed continually updated satellite maps of fire ( that the Rangers could use to quickly monitor fires across the plateau.


The NAFI website is used as a key tool in monitoring fires in the WALFA project

The TS-CRC also supported research that identified another problem with these frequent wildfires: they were net emitters of Greenhouse Gases like methane and nitrous oxide with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of these gases being emitted each year from the plateau. However, this impact turned out to be a key to solving a major problem – how the new Indigenous “two tool kit” fire management could be funded into the future. The research demonstrated that the more traditional patchy burning resulted in significantly less greenhouse gas emissions from the plateau. As the wildfires largely stemmed from smaller fires that escaped from people’s activities in the area surrounding the plateau their emissions were “anthropogenic” and as re-introducing more traditional burning would reduce these anthropogenic emissions such a re-introduction would be eligible for payments from the voluntary carbon trading market.

This idea became a reality when the Northern Territory Government started negotiating with Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas Pty Ltd. the developers of a large LNG facility in Darwin harbour. Both parties were looking for a way in which some of the GHG emissions from the new plant could be “offset” by initiatives that reduced emissions and the NT Government proposed that the West Arnhem Land fire abatement project be funded by DLNG as a way of achieving these offsets. In late 2006 DLNG agreed to pay Indigenous land managers over $1M a year for the next 17 years to reduce wildfires in return for GHG emission reductions.


What’s been achieved?

The impacts of the WALFA project can be grouped under three headings:

The area affected by wildfire has been reduced

The project has significantly changed the fire patterns across the western part of the Arnhem Land Plateau reducing the extent of late dry season wildfire. This is shown in the graph below which shows the extent of early and late dry season fire from 1995-2008. The years 1995-2006 before the project began in earnest generally have low extents of fire in the early part of the year and higher extents of fire in later, hotter time of year – ie often have extensive wildfire. The years 2007 – 2008 by contrast have higher extents of burning in the early, cooler part of the year which actually represent many patches of cooler burns, and much lower extents of burning in the late, hotter time of year representing reduced wildfire.

WALFA Fire Graph 










Greenhouse gases have been abated

Due to the success in reducing wildfire, in the first four years of operation total Greenhouse Gases equivalent to 488,000 tonnes of CO2 have been abated* (relative to the baseline average emissions 1995-2004) – around 20% ahead of the agreed target of 100,000 tonnes abatement per year. .

*Note that only emissions of methane and nitrous oxides are counted here as under current Kyoto rules savanna fires are not considered to net emitters of CO2.


Indigenous communities have been strengthened

WALFA chopper

Young men from local communities working with researchers to assess the impact of fires

The project is now employing around 30 Indigenous fire managers. The local Indigenous communities are also benefiting from other activities enabled by the project:

·        a number of clan groups are now returning to country and some of these are considering future management possibilities including formally recognised protected areas;

·        senior elders are now imparting traditional knowledge to younger people whose families have been off country for a long time and indigenous children are being exposed to indigenous rangers and western scientists encouraging the study of western science at school which incorporated into traditional knowledge lends this new generation of scientists two “tool kits”;

·        Indigenous knowledge conservation programs collaborating with groups such as researchers from ANU and Melbourne University;

·        Indigenous workers’ and landowners’ English language skills are being improved through working with scientists and other non-Aboriginal staff – this  work is building cross-cultural confidence that is essential if economic opportunity in the area is to be taken up by Aboriginal people;

·        the Manwurrk Ranger group has formed Warddeken Land Management Pty Ltd, a cultural and natural resource management organization that aims to conserve and manage the plateau and generate income through these activities; and

·        the on-ground fire management has involved the collaboration of a number of indigenous ranger groups from across western Arnhem Land which is already leading to improved social coordination with regular meetings involving all these groups.


The future

This model of fire management to generate income is now being applied across northern Australia – mainly in areas subject to frequent wildfires with limited additional sources of income. Four areas, largely on Indigenous owned land with high natural and cultural values in the far north, have been identified (see pic below). To build the governance, knowledge, skills and monitoring framework needed to duplicate what the WALFA project has done will take a few years and this capacity building is being coordinated by NAILSMA using funds from the Federal Government. 

NAILSMA fire areas