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
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.
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
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
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 < www.firenorth.org.au > 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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.