Some facts about the raging wildfire debate

Published 23 Jan 2018 
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Richard Geddes fighting fire at Carnarvon Station Reserve<br/> Richard Geddes fighting fire at Carnarvon Station Reserve

Many of you may have read an article in a recent Good Weekend magazine, debating the merits of conducting prescribed burning in Northern Australia. As Bush Heritage’s National Fire Program Manager, with over a decade working in fire management and conservation in that region, I wanted to respond to some of the inaccuracies of this report.

While land managers may not always get such a difficult task as prescribed burning right, they're all for the most part prioritising the conservation of biodiversity and cultural sites. Their work is guided by the best available science and technology, as well as the traditional ecological knowledge of Aboriginal people.

The fire regime in Kakadu is complex due to many different people lighting fires – including acts of arson – and the very high incidence of wildfires started by lightning every year. Unlike other parts of Australia where fire risk is dependent on environmental and weather conditions that change from year to year, the high rainfall savannas of Northern Australia have the potential to burn very large areas every year. In places like Kakadu it's not question of ‘if’ there will be a fire in a particular year but ‘when’.

This is due to the annual drought (dry season) which creates a tinder dry landscape which can burn every year and fires will spread across large areas due to widespread dry lightning storms from September to December without strategic prescribed burning. These severe wildfires are considered the biggest threat to the biodiversity and cultural sites like rock art galleries. Prescribed burning, which creates slow moving, low intensity fires, is implemented in the early dry season when the landscape is still drying out after the annual monsoon (wet season) and most fires go out overnight with the dew.

Satellite data and fire history through remote sensing shows that the fire regimes are starting to improve with more strategic prescribed burning, particularly in the sandstone plateau areas of Kakadu, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley, where there are many fire-sensitive plant and animal communities.

The scientists mentioned in this article all agree that small, low severity patchy burns through prescribed burning is the best way to prevent large intense wildfires. The other fire scientists mentioned – including CSIRO's Garry Cook and CDU's Jeremy Russell-Smith – are also strong advocates of Aboriginal fire abatement projects, which have dramatically improved fire regimes in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley in recent years.

To suggest the rangers are burning because they are getting a financial incentive to do so from carbon projects misses the point. These are fire abatement projects, which by definition reduce the extent and severity of fire in the landscape. Increasing the extent and severity of fire – compared to a historical baseline – actually results in a financial penalty in carbon abatement projects, not an incentive.

The main priority for Aboriginal rangers and traditional owners is looking after the Country for current and future generations. Income received from carbon projects enables Aboriginal ranger programs to improve land management capacity, including prescribed burning and fire-fighting activities.

We have invested much training and support for Aboriginal rangers across our Aboriginal partnerships program. Having managed and shaped the land for over 40,000 years (and counting), their knowledge is teaching us much about how country responds, and rejuvenates, after right-way fire burning.