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
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
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
What are the biggest challenges in achieving this
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
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
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
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.
North Australia Fire Information
NAFI: Up-to-date maps and data on fires across northern Australia. Includes hotspots and fire-scars.