Tropical Savannas CRC > Publications > Savanna Links > Savanna Links Archive > Issue 30, October - December 2004

Issue 30, October - December 2004

Fire season brings together landholders

grass fire in Northern Territory
Photo: Kathryn Thorburn

Fires were so extensive in the Top End this year an area the size of Tasmania and Victoria combined was burnt. But the harsh fire season united some of the region’s diverse groups of landholders for the first time.

Savanna Links talks to Dr Mark Gardener, fire officer with the CRC, who worked with the land managers of the Top End.

Could you describe this year’s Top End fire season?

This fire season was big: more than half of the Top End area was burnt this year. That looks to be the biggest area burnt since records began in 1993. In particular we had three or four very large late-season wildfires in the Arnhem Land Plateau; just those few fires burnt out 30,000 square kilometres. In the Tanami Desert we had an incredible fire of 80,000 square kilometers, see map opposite. If you put all the fires together that we’ve had in the Northern Territory Top End this year, they’ve burned out approximately the same area as Victoria and Tasmania combined.

So why were the fires so big this year?

The most obvious reason is that the past two wet seasons have been very good and in 2003 we also had quite a small fire season, so there’s been a build-up of fuel. We had a late wet season in 2004 which went to June, which meant that the fuel did not fully dry until the hotter time of year – so the fire season began in June and didn’t end until December. We also had some hot days and high winds and so we got these large-scale wildfires.

Were there more people lighting fires?

I don’t think so; it’s just that perhaps in previous years many ignitions would have gone out, whereas this year they’ve carried on to something bigger.

What have you been doing with people on the ground to help deal with these large fires?

I’ve been working with a few different groups on the ground, in particular a group of land managers in the Victoria River District (VRD) which is in the west of the Northern Territory. I’ve been working with a relatively small number of people who manage very large pieces of land and they’re mostly managing it for cattle. However, the VRD also has the second-largest National Park in Australia – Gregory National Park – and several Aboriginal communities and a large military training area as well.

So we’ve got a diverse range of people! In the past there has been some division between them, but the fires have been so extensive in this region this year that they’ve realized they have to work together – to plan regionally. After all, you can’t always have fire breaks just along property boundaries; you might have to put in a fire break that goes across three different land tenures.

So collaboration was given a boost by the big fire season?

Definitely. People have talked about better collaboration but until this year when everyone was involved and everyone got burnt, it hadn’t happened. In 2004 they all worked together for once: there were Aboriginal rangers, station hands and park rangers all standing next to each other all fighting the fires on all different land tenures. That sort of thing hasn’t happened before.

What are the biggest challenges in achieving this collaboration?

It is to have effective coordination from one or two agencies – the key agency there is the Bushfires Council of the NT – so there are sufficient resources to actually implement fire management plans, and to get information to allow people to manage fire better. I guess my role, and that of my colleagues, is to provide the information that these people need to go forward.

What sort of information?

Currently the North Australian Fire Information website is proving very helpful – it shows where fires are and where fires have been for that year. But people also want this information in different ways.

For example, they may want to see where fires have been over, say, the last five or 10 years, which helps them plan on their property and with their neighbours, by indicating the most likely places that a fire is going to start. Also we teach people to use computer-based mapping tools so they can map their own private information – such as infrastructure, roads, tracks, grass-fuel loads – with the publicly available fire locations.

What has been the problem with particular groups talking to each other in the past?

The three main groups are Aboriginal people, pastoralists and National Park staff. In the past there’s been something of a ‘blame game’ with Aboriginal people in particular blamed for lighting a lot of fires. But the interesting thing about recent meetings with pastoralists is that people acknowledge this, but then they decide to move on. They felt it was far better to get the Aboriginal people involved and let Aboriginal people sort it out themselves. So pastoralists are looking at including a lot more Aboriginal people in fire planning.

The other animosity is between National Park staff and pastoralists – but again both seem to have come to a mutual understanding of the need to work together.

So when you say “trying to help Aboriginal communities help themselves” – how does that work?

It’s involving local people, figuring out who are the key people who have the capacity and the desire to be involved and then supporting those people – giving them some training, giving them some employment, including them in all these decisions. There’s the hope that there will be self-regulation among Aboriginal people.

So is there a danger that if the cycle goes back again and we get less destructive fires, that the incentive for cooperation will drop off again?

I can imagine that it would go through that cycle – people might say ‘OK we’ve sorted this out’ and so some funding and effort would be withdrawn and then we would get another big destructive wildfire season.


Dr Mark Gardener
Head of Botany Department
Charles Darwin Foundation
Tel: (593-5) 2526 146/147

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galápagos