by Peter Saint, Fire & Emergency Services Authority of
From 1998 Summary Papers from the North Australia Fire
Management Workshop, March 24-25, Darwin, Tropical Savannas
Smoke billows from a fire in the Kimberley
Photo: Carol Palmer
Fire is an integral part of the northern environment of
Australia. If we step back some years, pastoral management involved
a significant amount of time on horseback moving through country.
During this period patch burning was conducted on a reasonably
large scale, where possible, as vegetation cured and was an
accepted practice. This was generally carried out by Aboriginal
Times have changed, and a lot of mustering is now conducted by
helicopter, reducing on-ground assessment and patch burning.
Economics of today also dictate the dollar strategy. Land managers
are aware that burning is required, however, if we look at the
trend of managers, most properties are now owned by large companies
or corporations, with a resident or part-time manager. Some
owner/operator properties have resorted to tourism to keep the
dollar coming in. Do they burn for pastoral and asset management or
not burn to maintain an aesthetic environment for visitors? This is
also becoming a strong issue especially in the tourist season in
other lands besides those used for pastoral purposes.
This map of fire history for the year 2000, shows that most
fires in the Kimberley were late fires. This is the typical pattern
in the Kimberley.
Burning as a management tool
Fire prevention and planning is a huge task in the north of
Australia. We can be assured that it will be annual, if we are
fortunate enough not to be in a drought, and have an environment
whereby our planning can generally be set to specific months. The
setback is the vast areas with limited resources, and small
"windows" of appropriate conditions to conduct for example a
strategic burn. At present in the Kimberley region, landholders
advise whether they wish to utilise a "user pays" aerial means of
burning, conduct their own by hand, or do nothing.
In many cases in the north, rural fire agencies are trying to
operate under guidelines developed for areas with high densities of
populations, a totally different climate, vegetation, fire season,
resourcing, and city-based attitudes. Agencies must be aware that
operations are different, difficult and sometimes complex in
I have been fortunate over the years to have spent time with
fire agencies in Cape York and Northern Territory, and find that we
are really one big family with the same concerns and objectives.
The Northern Territory Bushfires Council is certainly leading the
way in fire management in northern Australia. This is probably due
to the fact that they are "in the middle" of it all, and have had
to develop within their respective environment whereby north
Queensland and the Kimberley are several thousand kilometres from
the basis and foundations of their organisational development, and
trying to manage their areas under criteria and guidelines
developed for large volunteer brigade infrastructure. Further
research and development of best practice is a major priority.
Since this article was written, a second major fire
management program is now taking place in the Kimberley
It is run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
See link below under Website information.