Issue 6, May - June 1998

Fire on the Savannas

Dean Yibarbik

"To go forward we need to encourage our children in the way of the past. Fire must be managed and people must be on the country to manage that and that's a job for the future."

Dean Yibarbuk, Bawinanga Corporation at the CRC Fire Workshop

". . . when we're talking about fire management in northern Australia, we're talking about management of the effects of fire not fire itself. So fire management should really be viewed as a way of managing land, not managing fire."

Alan Andersen, CSIRO TERC, at the CRC Fire Workshop

While land managers throughout Australia continue to debate whether to burn or not to burn, those at a recent CRC fire workshop arrived at an early consensus: burning is an important and necessary tool to effectively manage the northern savannas. Further, disregarding fire management may prove fatal to individual operations and the health of the land.

The North Australian Fire Management Workshop, held by the Tropical Savannas CRC in Darwin from March 24 to 25, drew more than 100 participants from as far afield as the Kimberleys to the north Queensland coast.

Those at the forum quickly realised that regardless of which region they came from or what sector of land use they represented, all had a great deal in common when it came to fire management. And their backgrounds were diverse: pastoralists, Aborigines, conservationists, scientists, tour operators and representatives from the military, tourism and mining sectors. All had gathered together to discuss the use of fire as a land management tool in the north Australian landscape.

One issue that was raised was common to all stakeholders: wildfires represent a constant and growing problem. Today there is less planned burning because fewer people are moving across the land than they did even 20 years ago. That means a fuel load of unburnt grasslands accumulates, raising the prospect of a wall of fire sweeping across the landscape when ignited. There has also been a decline in the technology of fire management especially among pastoralists and Aborigines. "We've lost the library," was a concern commonly voiced.

Discussions at the workshop identified a gap in communication between neighbouring landholders, where neighbours often omitted to notify each other of impending wildfires or planned fire regimes.

Speakers from various sectors drew insights from each other's experiences: pastoralists like Jeff Baker from Mataranka station in the Top End spoke at length about his meticulous burning strategies.

Others found that their philosophies on burning did not differ much from traditional burning by Aboriginal landholders. All were fascinated by Dean Yibarbuk's talk on traditional burning regimes still practised in the region of his Maningrida homeland. Scientists such as the CSIRO's Alan Andersen and the NT Bushfires Council's Jeremy Russell-Smith spoke about how science and land managers can work together for mutual benefits, discovering more about the actual effects fire has on the savannas.

There is still much to learn. As zoologist John Woinarski, from the Parks and Wildlife of the NT pointed out, many of the long-term effects of wildfire on the region's biodiversity are still unknown. Science will play an ever-increasing role in future north Australian fire management. All attending were encouraged to use the latest advances in technology to their advantage when dealing with fire on the savanna.

Regularly updated remote sensing information can now be accessed on the Internet. Home computers can play a practical role in modelling wildfires or managed burns, and workshops like the CRC event provide wide-ranging benefits to all stakeholders. They offer a forum for an interchange of ideas that will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the important relationship fire has to the sprawling north Australian savanna.

A booklet on the CRC Fire Workshop is now available. Called Burning Issues: In Our Own Words , it captures some of the diverse fire management practices and perspectives across northern Australia. Go to our Publications section to read more.

Photos: Dennis Schulz


Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith
Fire Management Consultant
Tel: 08 8922 0830

Fax: 08 8922 0833

PO Box 37346