Savanna Explorer > Darwin-Kakadu > Fire > Fire management in Kakadu

Fire management in Kakadu

by Jeremy Russell-Smith, Bushfires Council of the NT
From Savanna Burning — Understanding and Using Fire in Northern Australia , Tropical Savannas CRC, Darwin 2001

Kakadu presents many challenges for fire managers Kakadu presents many challenges for fire management, including the protection of fire-sensitive communities of the rugged sandstone Arnhem Plateau. Photo: Jeremy Russell-Smith

The complexity of managing fire in savanna landscapes is illustrated by the fire management program in the 20,000 sq. km World Heritage Kakadu National Park. Kakadu contains a diversity of fire-sensitive species and habitats, a major town, two extensive and active mining leases, and a number of Aboriginal outstations, ranger stations and tourist destinations.

This complexity is reflected further in the variety of fire management objectives as set out in the Plan of Management. The aims are to:

  • promote traditional ways of burning within the park
  • involve Bininj/Mungguy (i.e. the traditional owners) in planning and implementing fire management
  • protect life and property within and adjacent to the park
  • restrict fire from spreading so that it does not enter or leave the park
  • maintain biodiversity through effective fire management of species and habitats

Fire managers

In practical ter ms, fire management is undertaken both by traditional owners and park staff, mostly in the early to mid-dry season period (typically May-July) when fires tend to be small, patchy, of low intensity and typically go out at night under cool, dewy conditions. Burning is undertaken as the country dries out, starting in upland areas early in the dry season, increasingly in moister areas (e.g. creek lines and flood plains) with the progression of the dry season. Fires are lit off tracks and roads, and also with aerial incendiaries using helicopters, especially in more remote locations. More than half of the extensive lowland savannas are burnt on average each year.

Importantly, fire management in Kakadu also concerns much consultation between traditional owners, park staff, park communities, industry, neighbouring properties and the Bushfires Council of the NT. This consultation starts each year before the burning program commences and continues right through to the start of the next wet season. There is plenty of room for things to go wrong.

Creating mosaics

An active management principle therefore is to break the country up in the early part of the year with a mosaic of patchy fires. Such a mosaic has a number of practical benefits:

  • It can halt, or at least reduce, the passage of potentially extensive, typically intense fires which can readily get away in the late dry season under highly flammable climatic and fuel conditions.
  • It will foster the development of habitat diversity, providing a matrix of recently burnt, through to long unburnt patches, as required by different groups of plants and animals.

Results to date

Since 1979, when the first stage of the park was declared, the fire management record has shown some substantial successes as well as ongoing challenges. Amongst the successes: a recent analysis of the fire history of the park developed from interpretation of satellite imagery has shown that the burning program has increasingly been concentrated in the early to mid-dry season in line with traditional practice; that the sizes of individual fires have become markedly smaller and that, over the past decade or so, few uncontrolled fires have entered or left the park. Major challenges still facing the park include: ecologically unsustainable, high fire frequencies in some habitats (including lowland rainforests and fire-sensitive sandstone heaths) and limited opportunities for traditional owners to be actively employed in park fire management programs.


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

Fax: 08 8922 0833

PO Box 37346