Fire in the desert: a formidable threat and a tool

 

Despite more knowledge and cooperation …

• nearly half the Centre burned this year 

• 24 cattle stations had more than 50% burn

• 3 cattle stations had more than 70% burn  

• another 26 stations had 30- 50 % burn  

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

Gone are the days when landowners had to rely on “sniffing the breeze” in fire season – yet this year nearly half of Central Australia burned.

The North Australian Fire Information website (NAFI) has completely changed what’s possible, according to Lyndee Severin from Curtin Springs Station. In the narrow window of opportunity for preventive burning at Curtin Springs this year, using NAFI’s live fire maps meant they could adjust their plans “on a half day basis”.

Mrs Severin spoke with feeling at Tuesday’s  fire management seminar at the Desert Knowledge Precinct, featuring a presentation by fire scientist, Grant Allan. Mrs Severin said as pastoralists they were well aware of the fire threat represented by the massive build up of vegetation following above average rains: “We absolutely knew what was goign to happen.”

They began trying to do controlled burns in June and continued in July but the country would not light up – growth was too green, soil moisture too high. It wasn’t until “the last day of winter” that their fires “got some movement”. In the end it came down to a two to three week period in which they could create firebreaks before the fire season was upon them.

Getting a letter from the NT Government at about this time, urging greater preparedness, really offended them, said Mrs Severin:  “How we could have done better, I don’t know.”

However, she also argued that Central Australia cannot withstand annual burning. Mr Allan’s core message is that fire is an essential component of the Central Australian landscape and has to be used as a management tool consistently. Leaving control burning until there is a large build-up of fuel can be leaving it until too late, he said.

Mrs Severin said putting a match to the ground is very hard for pastoralists “when it could be another decade before it rains”. Nonetheless, at Curtin Springs they bit the bullet and it worked for them, they were able to create a buffer zone.

Other stations, such as Indiana, were not so lucky. They had put in good fire breaks, said Mr Allan, but a lightning strike on the wrong side of a break in windy conditions led to a large tract of country burning.

This year almost 40% of the southern half of the NT – a sparsely populated area covering some 800,000 square kilometres  – has burned, he said. A large proportion of that was caused by wildfire in the months August to October, as well as by control burns getting out of hand, despite the best of intentions. Maps showing the intense and relentless progress of the fires over a large swathe of country, from the Simpson in the south-east to the Tanami in the north-west, brought a shocked gasp from the audience.

Some areas have fared worse than others: 24 pastoral properties in the Alice Springs region had more than 50% of the property burn, for three it was greater than 70%, and a further 26 properties had fires burn between 30 and 50 % of their area.  These levels of burn are a challenge to the viability of the properties.

The good news is that the region’s fire-prevention and fire-fighting capacity has significantly improved since the last big fire season in 2001-02. Apart from NAFI being available as a tool, there is much better collaboration between Bushfires NT, Parks and Wildlife, the Central Land Council (which has employed a fire management officer), Aboriginal rangers, such as the Tjuwampa and Ingerreke Rangers, and pastoralists. The strategic burning undertaken with coordinated effort and new techniques such as aerial burning achieved some success, for instance along the eastern boundary of Suplejack Station and around mulga country in the southern Tanami.

Mr Allan also described the difficulties but ultimate success of a fire-fighting effort over two weeks in August, north and west of Alice Springs. With all hands to the pump, the fire was finally contained in hilly country around Ellery Creek, by control burning a long strip in between two graded containment lines. As well, rangers and volunteers, working with rakehoes and blowers burned a containment line in the foothills of the MacDonnell Ranges. Mr Allan said 10 years ago fire in hilly country would have been left to burn but now “we’ve picked up the skills to get in and pinch it off”.

The big challenge comes when there are a number of fires burning at the same time. It stretches Bushfires NT’s resources to the limit, and neighbours busy fighting their own fires aren’t available to help others.

The Central Australian fire cycle is simple but not necessarily well understood, said Mr Allan. Rain is the big driver. It causes grasses to grow, they dry out and then they burn. The complicating factor is the variability from one season to the next. It takes 24 months of above average rainfall to produce a fire season like the one we’ve had (or are having, perhaps, depending on what further rain we get and when in this second, weakened La Nina year). It’s also important to remember the variability across the land mass. What happens on Curtin Springs can be very different to what happens in Rabbit Flat.

It’s necessary to understand fuel types. Mr Allan mentioned spinifex and the controversial buffel grass, for both of which “fuel continuity” is “the big issue”. Breaking that up requires more than patch burning – the patches need to be linked to linear containment strips. All of this work is too much to undertake only in the big fire threat years – there needs to be continual effort.

It’s important to not only protect the biologically significant areas, he said. He showed a map of these in the Tanami, then filled in the area with all the sites of cultural significance that are also worthy of protection: suddenly the desert wasn’t looking so ’empty’.

There’s a chance that areas that have already burned, will burn again this summer, said Mr Allan. The prospects for rain are good and that will help pasture to recover, but if it dries off it could obviously burn. Although unusual, areas in the Simpson this year burned twice, with only an eight-month interval between fires.

Large areas of country, including around Alice Springs, have not burned and high fuel loads developing in the south mean the fire risk there is significantly increased. (At this point in his presentation Mr Allan showed a slide of flat country densely vegetated by buffel grass: “I won’t dwell on it,” he said – an unspoken message that drew laughter around the room.)

In the longer term, climate change modelling predicts increased temperatures and higher evaporation rates for our region but it is a lot less certain around what will happen with rainfall. In any event, said Mr Allan, variability will remain the key factor that we have to manage for.

 

Pictured: from the top – The Centre burns. Photo by OLIVER ECLIPSE. • Ashley and Lyndee Severin from Curtin Springs Station at the fire seminar – putting a match to the ground is very hard for pastoralists “when it could be another decade before it rains”, said Mrs Severin. • Fire scientist Grant Allan. • Mulga country burned after an intense fire near the Jindalee over the horizon radar facility. With rain it will recover. The fire should have helped stimulate the seedbank, says Mr Allan, but success of recruitment will be variable as will the growth of the new plants and their time to maturity. Photo by Grant Allan.

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6 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Paul Parker
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Climate change is often a slow process. Around the world, over long periods of time, as people arrived they modified their environments and landscapes. Changes to landscapes change climates.
    Most accept fire as a significant part of Australia’s environment long before humans arrived.
    Most accept fire was a significant part of human lifestyles after they arrived in Australia.
    It is difficult to determine how long ago humans caused burns as opposed to more naturally caused fires.
    The evidence does not reject inferences of human changes to environment and climate.
    Claims our environment today only results from natural environments, rejects wider evidence of human impact.

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  2. Steve Brown
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Don’t you just love that little comment from our wonderfully competent friends in Territory Parks! So if an Aboriginal person stands alongside you when you drop the match to light a fire does it burn differently than if you do it yourself? Would you agree that an attitude of accepting that it does could be regarded as patronizing paternalism or in fact just plain racism used to justify an unjustifiable position?
    So to prevent the possible event of some supposed impossibly hot fire you are prepared to burn again and again and again which in a period of twenty years may mean you’ve burnt dozens of times to prevent a possible fire that may never have occurred naturally in that time?
    Just this week you been hooraying the wonderful find of our local possum species the same ones that your cold burn policy wiped from existence on Simpsons Gap some years ago probably explains your relief at the new find. Nice to know that a cold burn wasn’t responsible for the extermination of the last of the species, then again got any cold burns coming up soon at Ormiston?
    The fact is your policy of cold burning has been an environmental disaster of which your department should be utterly ashamed! Time to take a fresh approach. Use fire to prevent fire around vital infrastructure. Forget the Victorian bush fires. Concentrate on your own region where the management issues are completely different. You are not burning off to prevent fire damage to nearby infrastructure as in Victoria. You are burning off because some academic heard somewhere that that is what traditional owners used to do. It is simply not true!
    If they had they would have starved to death in half a generation! Stop the blatant vandalism of our parks by blow-in racist academics.

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  3. Steve Brown
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    The introduction of improved pasture species into our regions has been a great blessing for pastoralists, improving our soil’s fertility and producing vast amounts more fodder from every rainfall event. Naturally the greater productivity also brings with it greater fire risk. Risk that must be managed. The very small available population to take on that greater management role must raise questions about overall land use and structure in Central Australia. Government should be giving serious consideration to allowing pastoralists whose properties can demonstrate marked pasture improvement by species such as buffel to subdivide into smaller more manageable lots, this way also lifting the population of available personnel to deal with major fire events and other land management issues.
    There is however one fundamental issue that must be addressed by our various land management agencies in order to make way for a more sustainable management of our landscape. That is to change the fundamental misconception rife within land management agencies that country needs to burn, “that it is OK to burn”!
    It is not OK! It does not need to burn,ever! The attitude derives from a paternal belief about Aboriginal fire stick farming, that in some way it is good for the country. This is a totally false premise. Burning, especially repetitive burning does enormous damage to our soils, our landscape and our wildlife. Despite popular belief country struggles to come back from major fire events and can quite literally take decades to return to its former productivity. That is why it must become the watchword, the all pervading philosophy of all involved agencies to stop, to prevent fires at all costs!
    Can you imagine taking your car and pranging it into a wall in an effort to prevent the greater damage caused by a head-on prang or pushing the front row of glasses off the shelf before they could fall by themselves? Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Yet we take that same idiotic approach to fire risk management. We know there is a good possibility of fire in the season ahead so we start the fire before they can start themselves, supposedly cold, fuel [not feed] reducing fires.
    Looking back at past seasons, what has been the result of this practice? We’ve burnt the grass in case it burnt, supposedly a cold burn that did less damage but was that really the case? What have we actually saved? The grass is gone, any unsound tree goes, fire hot or cold, we’ve ended up with no pasture, less trees, much less wildlife and returned our pastoralists to drought conditions unless there is a rainfall event, so what exactly did we save???
    These burn offs and allowing the fires to run, which is common practice, these deliberately lit, so called cold fires have been the birthplace of nearly every large destructive fire in recent times, especially those originating in national parks. Because of the ingrained attitude of, “it’s better to let it burn now, in case it burns latter”, vast swathes of the countryside have been allowed to burn.
    Nowhere is this practice more evident than just to the west of Alice. The once pastoral lease of Simpsons Gap now under the management of Territory Parks who in their bumbling efforts to manage very successful pasture growth saddled by patronising paternal beliefs about firestick farming have set out to cold burn the park on every occasion there has been a bit of dry grass in sight. On nearly every occasion they have lost control of their burn and instead of burning small parcels have burned nearly the entire park and its surrounds, creating an ecological disaster, wiping out colonies of rare wildlife, threatening their own and the town’s infrastructure.
    So what did they achieve with the burn? What did they prevent?
    I hope those reading this will gain some understanding of the fundamental stupidity of our present approach to fire management and take a long hard look at how we go about it. Yes fire has to be used to prevent and contain fire but the emphasis must be on the word prevent!! It is simply not OK to burn!!
    Fire management must concentrate its energies on the establishment of graded fire breaks at considerable greater frequency. Emphasis must be put on fire intelligence and rapid response with an all out goal of extinguishment of any fire event as rapidly as possible. Much greater emphasis particularly in national parks needs to be given to grazing – eat the dam stuff, it’s food! The grazing of cattle and national parks are not mutually exclusive nor is the survival of wildlife, understand that country, industry, people and wildlife are immensely damaged by fire, minimise its presence on our landscape! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to burn the house – can’t live with the risk of it catching fire any longer.

    ED – The Alice Springs News Online will offer right of reply to Parks and Wildlife about the burns at Simpsons Gap.

    ED – A spokesperson for Parks and Wildlife provided the following response:

    The Parks and Wildlife Service has demonstrated sound management practices undertaking prescribed burns on park estate with Traditional Owners for over 30 years. It has been proven through numerous reviews and studies (including the recent Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s response) that country will eventually burn and burn more extensively and hotter if just left until the occurrence of lightning strike fires or “accidental” ignition, especially in extensive fuel load situations that prevail following extended periods of above average rainfall, whether grazed or un-grazed.

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  4. tony sanderson
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Bush fires have always been a natural phenomenon but those who choose to light them for destructive purposes should be made to pay for their crime with jail, removal of all social benefits and put in work gangs to repair the damage caused, particularly to fences and waters.
    After some people are put in this position the word will quickly spread. My thoughts are with those who have suffered by the horrendous acts of wanton destruction.
    I also suggest greater accountability by those who authorize controlled burning. Hang in there you pastoralists, there is another wet on the way. Good luck.

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  5. David Nixon
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Grant’s presentation is on YouTube: http://youtu.be/IJPwWY4iho0

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  6. andrew fitzgerald
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I hear that the NAFI website could be shut down at the end of 2011. After what we have experienced, this would be extremely unwise(!)

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