Tropical Savannas CRC > Publications > Savanna Links > Issue 36, Jan-June 2009

Issue 36, January-July 2009

Arnhem fire project revitalises country

For millennia Indigenous fire management and the rocky terrain of the West Arnhem Plateau in the Northern Territory protected cultural sites, bush tucker and rainforest patches from the ravages of frequent fire that swept over the surrounding savanna lowlands.

Recently, with most Indigenous people having left the Plateau, extensive wildfires have been free to spread over this unique landscape, a situation seen across northern Australia. Using an innovative ‘Two Tool Kit’ approach, Indigenous fire managers working with the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) Project have now returned to the Plateau and are re-establishing a more benign fire pattern, writes Peter Jacklyn.


Researchers and young men from local Indigenous communities have been working together monitoring fire management in the WALFA project. Left to righ: Peter Brocklehurst, Campbell Wood (pilot), Emanuel Namarnyilk, Andrew Edwards, Dick Djogiba, Ray Nadjamerrek.
Researchers and young men from local Indigenous communities have been working together monitoring fire management in the WALFA project. Left to righ: Peter Brocklehurst, Campbell Wood (pilot), Emanuel Namarnyilk, Andrew Edwards, Dick Djogiba, Ray Nadjamerrek. Photo: John Schatz

 A wildfire spreads through sandstone habitat on the West Arnhem Plateau
 A wildfire spreads through sandstone habitat on the West Arnhem Plateau (Di Lucas)

The West Arnhem Plateau ravaged by wildfire showing whole canopies of trees burnt.
The West Arnhem Plateau ravaged by wildfire
showing whole canopies of trees burnt.

Because the West Arnhem Plateau has been protected from uncontrolled fires for so long, it abounds in rich assemblages of fire-sensitive plants and animals as well as many other species. This country is also home to hundreds of traditional rock painting sites—many date back thousands of years and the Arnhem Land rock art galleries have been described as “one of the world’s supreme art galleries 1”. In recent times however, the plateau has been no refuge from fierce dry-season fires, and both plants, animals and historic art are at risk. According to fire ecologist, Jeremy Russell-Smith, some of the art sites are getting blasted.

“Because of build up of fuel on the outside, an intense fire will burn the leaves and bark of trees and the outer surface of the rock itself—sheets of it peel off,” he says.

So why is this plateau now ravaged by frequent fire? For thousands of years Aboriginal people managed this country by lighting fires for various purposes which created a patchwork of differently burnt areas across the region. In the late dry season (August–December) when hot, windy conditions and dry grasses can lead to extensive wildfires, such fires were stopped in their tracks by the mosaic of burnt patches of grass that probably stretched across the Arnhem plateau and much of northern Australia.

This situation changed when Europeans arrived in northern Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century and Aboriginal people were driven out of, or left much of remote north Australia, including the Arnhem plateau.

In recent decades large parts of the deserted plateau remained unburnt in the early dry season, and without burnt patches acting as breaks, they were swept by wildfire later in the year. Most of these wildfires grew from smaller fires that were still lit by people for various purposes in the communities, mining and hunting camps that surrounded the plateau. Northern Australia now has frequent, extensive wildfires that are free to spread across empty landscapes and as a consequence large areas of country are frequently burnt.

Two Tool Kits

Although they no longer lived for long periods on the plateau, Traditional Owners like Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, AO, were still regular visitors and were dismayed by the fire damage they saw. In the late 1990s Lofty and other Traditional Owners in the area assisted by researchers allied with the Tropical Savannas CRC, the Northern Land Council and the Northern Territory Government decided to try and re-establish a more benign, patchier fire pattern on the plateau: a pattern that would see less destructive wildfires.

So the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) Project was born. They realised from the start that they would not be able to use only traditional burning practices as there were not enough traditional fire managers available to manage fire across tens of thousands of square kilometres of plateau. And even though using helicopters to light fires could cover the extensive areas involved, it was too coarse a technique to reproduce the mosaic of burning the land required.

Instead new methods of fire management were developed that used techniques drawn from both traditional and western toolkits: Indigenous rangers would create a mosaic of small patchy fires on foot, carefully choosing the location and the conditions drawing on their traditional knowledge; the rangers would also use satellite data to track the location of fires and burnt country using websites < > and would use helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to help create the patchy fire breaks.

Fire in the Greenhouse

While the Two Tool Kit fire management techniques were being refined on the ground, another opportunity emerged: better fire management could also reduce the large quantities of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) emitted by savanna fires.

As these fires are largely anthropogenic—caused by people—the greenhouse gases emitted by savanna burning are covered by the Kyoto Protocol and are listed in Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory (NGGI).

Several years were spent refining the Two Tool Kits approach, and developing techniques for measuring the greenhouse emissions from savanna fires that were considered robust enough to be accepted by the Australian Greenhouse Office (now part of the Department of Climate Change).

The studies showed that the current fire regime dominated by large, frequent, intense late dry-season fires emitted significantly more greenhouse gases than a more traditional burning regime of patchier, smaller fires (see box above).

So by introducing the patchier fire pattern, the WALFA Project could not only reduce the on-ground destructive impact of fires, it could reduce the greenhouse gases emitted across a large area of country.

Carbon dioxide not counted for now

The Kyoto Protocol considers that the carbon dioxide from savanna burning is effectively re-absorbed by new plant growth following burning (although a growing body of recent evidence indicates that in those areas of the northern savannas subject to frequent intense fires there is actually a net emission of CO2). Consequently only the methane and nitrous oxide are accounted for in the official figures for greenhouse gas emissions from savanna fires.

 In late 2006, an agreement was reached between the Northern Territory Government and the energy company ConocoPhillips, the developers of a large LNG facility in Darwin harbour. Greenhouse emissions from the facility needed to be offset by initiatives that reduced those emissions. The NT Government proposed that the WALFA Project be funded by ConocoPhillips as a way of achieving these offsets. The company agreed to pay Indigenous land managers more than $1 million a year for the next 17 years to reduce wildfires in return for greenhouse gas emission reductions.  


The WALFA project started off in a small area around Kabulwarnamyo, an outstation in the north east of the plateau, to test the Two Tool Kit approach. As it proved successful, they took on adjacent ranger groups as collaborators in the fire mitigation work, ending up with five ranger groups from across Western Arnhem Land cooperating to manage fire across an area of 28,000 square kilometres—around half the area of Tasmania. 

This collaboration is highly valued by Traditional Owners in the region as Paul Josif, a consultant who has worked with Indigenous people in Western Arnhem Land for some time, explains.

“They see this as being really successful,” he says.

“I was talking to senior Traditional Owners out at Weemol—around 350 km east of Katherine on the central Arnhem Highway—and they were now thinking and operating over a very large area.

 “They were talking about burning in sequence with how people were burning in Ngukurr and in relation to how people were burning north of them in Kabulwarnamyo, and subsequently how people would be burning in Kakadu and Oenpelli—more than 100 kilometres away.”

 Paul also points out the broader social and economic benefits of the project. “What people are saying is that there are more people back on country; there are jobs on country and good jobs, full-paying jobs now under the working on country program, and also through the ConocoPhillips agreement.

“There are also younger people learning from older people about country so that cultural knowledge is being re-established.”

A new fire pattern

The result of this coordinated approach was that by 2007, the ranger groups were able to put in place hundreds of patchy burns lit in the early dry season running along creek and cliff lines—and this had a major impact on limiting late dry season wildfires.

  Areas burnt by fire in WALFA project area in 2004   Areas burnt by fire in WALFA project area in 2007

The map on the left (above), shows the pattern of fires in 2004, the year before the WALFA project began—note the enormous area of more intense late dry season fires in orange almost covering the plateau.

The map on the right shows the fire patterns achieved since the project became fully operational in 2007 characterised by many patchy early dry season burns, few late dry season wildfires and large areas that are unburnt.

Early/late fire comparison in WALFA area

The graph at right shows the fire patterns in the WALFA Project area over the last 19 years and it shows that in 2007 and 2008, for the first time since before 1990, a new fire pattern has emerged with a low total area burnt, dominated by burning in the early dry season.

If these more patchy fire patterns can be maintained over many years, then the project will have succeeded in establishing a new fire regime on the West Arnhem Plateau—a regime characterised in many places by less frequent fire than before. Such a fire regime should have a beneficial effect on the fire sensitive plants and animals of the plateau, however, it will take several years for the evidence to emerge. Nevertheless there are some encouraging signs with many seedlings of vulnerable cypress pines surviving in the new fire patterns.

Emission cuts

Using the methodology developed by the WALFA Project, the new fire patterns on the plateau in 2007 and 2008 have emitted significantly less greenhouse gases than has been the average for the 10 years before the project started—equivalent to 166,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Although the assessment methodology will be further refined (see story previous page, How fire management cuts greenhouse gas emissions) this represents one of the most significant greenhouse gas abatement projects in Australia.