Tropical Savannas CRC > Publications > Savanna Links > Savanna Links Archive > Issue 15, July - September 2000

Issue 15, July - September 2000

Results out for world's biggest fire experiment

THE results of one of the world’s largest fire experiments, conducted in Kakadu National Park over an eight-year period, show that fire managers in northern Australia are on the right track, but an overly high frequency of fires is of concern.

The Kapalga Fire Experiment was established by CSIRO because fire is such an important part of the northern Australian environment, with more than 30 million hectares burnt annually. Although fire is a major part of life in the north, CSIRO ecologist Dr Alan Andersen said, the long-term effects on biodiversity are not well understood. Conservation managers need this information to help them do their job.

The Kapalga experiment covered 250 square kilometres, and tested four major fire regimes common in the Top End. The results showed that much of savanna biota is remarkably resilient to fire. However, a significant number of plants and animals are seriously affected by burning each year. Many of these species are affected more by whether or not fire occurs, rather than by how intense the fire is. This suggests that savanna biodiversity would benefit from improved management of fire frequency.

“Much of northern Australia is burnt each year,” said Dr Andersen. “However, more consideration needs to be given to how frequently fires occur. Our results show that biodiversity is optimised if substantial areas of savanna are only burnt once every three to five years.”

Current rates of burning in many parts of the Top End are substantially above this, with fire frequencies tending towards between one and two years.

“At Kapalga we were able for the first time to look at the effects of fire on the whole ecosystem. The experiment involved researchers from universities and other organisations, as well as CSIRO, covering topics including fire behaviour, nutrient cycling, hydrology and stream dynamics, vegetation, insects and spiders, and all vertebrate groups,” he said.

Parks Australia North, which manages Kakadu, provided valuable support for the experiment. The agency’s head, Peter Wellings, said land managers and scientists all agree that fire needs to be actively managed in the Top End.

“The question is not ‘should the country be burnt?’ but ‘when and where?’,” he said. “Kapalga’s results are not just important for Kakadu, but for all Top End land managers.”


Ms Barbie McKaige
Communication Coordinator
CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
Tel: 08 8944 8411

Fax: 08 8944 8444

PMB 44