By Jeremy Russell Smith, Bush Fires Council of the
NT & Tropical Savannas CRC
from Savanna Burning — Understanding and Using Fire in
Northern Australia, Tropical Savannas CRC, 2001
Sandstone country in the upper Cadell River area, central Arnhem
Land. Part of the clan estate where this assessment of traditional
burning was undertaken.
A key question concerning the traditional use of fire is the
long-term impact this has on plants and animals. In much of
northern Australia this question can no longer be addressed given
the cessation of traditional modes of management.
However, in 1997 an assessment of the ecological effects of an
essentially unbroken tradition of burning was undertaken on a clan
estate (i.e. country belonging to one family group) on the upper
Cadell River in central Arnhem Land. The project was undertaken as
a collaborative ranger training exercise between the Bawinanga
Association and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern
Traditional burning practice on this clan estate includes
lighting mostly small fires throughout the year, and cooperating
with neighbouring clans in planning and implementing burning
regimes. The assessment was undertaken over 10 days in September
after prescribed burning had mostly been completed.
Ecological assessments included: mapping of the resource base of
the estate from both traditional and ecological perspectives;
aerial survey of the extent ofburning, distribution of
fire-sensitive cypress pine, rock habitats, and a range of kangaroo
and other animal resources; animal inventory; detailed ecological
assessment of the status of fire-sensitive vegetation; and
on-ground assessment of the intensities of observed fires. As well,
ethnographic information concerning traditional fire management
practice was documented in interviews with senior custodians.
Major observations included:
- A large proportion of the estate had been burned during the
year of study.
- Resultant fires had been almost invariably patchy and of low
intensity given that fuel loads comprised mostly leaf litter and
- Burned sites attracted important animal food resources such as
- Important plant foods remained abundant.
- Fire-sensitive communities were well represented (e.g. cypress
pine woodlands, sandstone heath, riparian rainforest
- exotic plants were not recorded.
- diversity of vertebrates and fire-sensitive plants was high,
including rare or range-restricted species.
The above assessment provides a rare insight into the long-term
effects of traditional burning. Certainly, the particular clan
estate was shown to be in better shape than many other comparable
areas in northern Australia where, today, fire regimes are
dominated by extensive, typically intense fires burning mostly
grassy fuels. The assessment shows the value of intensive fire
management over a relatively small area (about 90 sq. km), but
there are obvious logistical difficulties when applying such
fine-scale management over larger areas.
Further, despite evident differences in purpose between
traditional indigenous and contemporary fire management practice,
this assessment shows that outcomes from well and consistently
executed traditional practice can be consistent with many widely
shared land management and conservation goals.