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Fire and people: different lifestyles and different views

Fire knows no boundaries and affects many different people in different ways across the tropical savannas. These groups include aboriginal people, pastoralists, fire fighters, park rangers, tourists, fire researchers and urban dwellers. These groups often have quite different attitudes to the landscape and land management and currently, there is no shared view on how we should manage fire in the tropical savannas. Perhaps a shared view is not needed, however it is important for these different groups to understand and respect the attitudes of the other groups involved in fire management.

Remote land managers

Prime responsibility for fire management lies with the people on the ground, and for the two groups that  manage the largest areas of land – Aboriginal people and pastoralists– fire management can be very important.

For Aboriginal people, burning practices have long been an integral part of their culture and are used for a variety of purposes.  The recent changes in burning patterns are of great concern to many aboriginal people. See the Aboriginal fire management section. For pastoralists, good fire management can have significant implications for the financial viability of their cattle stations.  If a wildfire burns out their fodder financial hardship can follow, and on fire can be used to manage pastures, weeds. The consequences of fire management, good or bad, tend to affect the people on the ground, the remote land managers before they affect others – and those impacts may be profound.

Fire is often a cheap and effective way of managing vast landscapes for remote land managers , however problems are arising because their numbers have diminished over wide areas in recent times. Not only are there often too few people to manage fire effectively, but valuable knowledge and experience are lost as people depart. For example, cattle stations are operating with fewer hands than ever before, and burning for protection against wildfires and for pasture renewal and weed control is often neglected, or even actively resisted. Concerns include the loss of valuable late dry-season pasture and fear of legal action if deliberately lit fires escape onto neighbours' land. On Aboriginal land people have been moved into communities, leaving large areas essentially unmanaged. National park rangers often transfer from one park to another too frequently to develop an adequate understanding of the fire needs of particular areas and institute appropriate management regimes. Vacant Crown Land is mostly just that: vacant.

Land Management Agencies and researchers

Most land-management agencies across northern Australia now have as a goal the prevention of late dry season, high-intensity fires, primarily through fuel reduction burning early in the dry season. The Bushfire Council of the Northern Territory, for example, lights fires over extensive areas of savanna using incendiary devices dropped from aircraft. The strategic lines and patches burnt are intended to minimise problems with fires later in the year. Such burns are often done in collaboration with land managers such as pastoralists. Western Australia's Bush Fires Board uses similar methods to protect productive country in the Kimberley from wildfire. Park managers also undertake extensive controlled burns early in the dry season.

Research Scientists often have their own distinctive attitudes to fire management.   Some scientists would like to see a more experimental and objective approach taken to fire management.

'Blackened bush' encounters

For many urban dwellers and tourists, however, fire can take on a very different aspect. For these people fire often has a negative image as something dangerous and destructive. Black burnt bush is the other obvious sign, and this can create problems for tourism operators if visitors encounter the aftermath of fire and are not impressed by what they see. However, encounters with blackened bush provide opportunities to educate the public about fire in the savanna. And people can be assured that it doesn't retain its burnt look for too long; after early dry season burning the bush recovers its green appearance in six to eight weeks.

Pollution concerns

Smoke from necessary fires may be a pollution problem, but in some situations it may be better to accept the risks
Photo: Peter Whitehead

Smoke from controlled burning can cause significant air pollution in towns and cities. The health impacts of this smoke have yet to be studied to any great extent, but there are indications that on days when there is above average smoke densities, health impacts will  result. But proposed national air quality standards may have an adverse impact on the capacity of land managers in some northern savanna regions to make the best use of fire—because of the risk of sending unacceptable amounts of smoke over urban areas. In some situations it may be feasible to restrict burning to periods when the smoke will blow away from population centres, but in others it might be necessary to accept that the risks entailed in not burning outweigh any possible aesthetic or health problems associated with occasional smoky days.

One concern that can be put to rest is that burning in the tropical savannas will add significantly to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, during savanna fires are balanced by uptake as the grass grows again. Net releases of two other significant gases, methane and nitrous oxide, are very small compared with total greenhouse emissions.

Delegates to a workshop on fire management in northern Australia, held in 1998, stressed the importance of communication and education. They considered community involvement and awareness vital if management goals are to be achieved.