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Fire and land use

by Peter Saint, Fire & Emergency Services Authority of WA
From 1998 Summary Papers from the North Australia Fire Management Workshop, March 24-25, Darwin, Tropical Savannas CRC
Smoke billows out from a fire in the Kimberley

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 stockmen.

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.

Fire history, Kimberley, 2000

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.

Communication and research programs

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 northern Australia.

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 region.

It is run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

See link below under Website information.