Prior to the 1960s, fire management in the Northern Territory was limited to the protection of major assets by pastoral properties and the opportunistic burning conducted for pasture and stock management. There is no doubt that Aboriginal burning of the bush was widely practised and there are numerous accounts of these burning practices being undertaken to manage food resources and to assist in hunting. There was however, a distinct lack of control and coordination, and there are stories today of fires originating in Queensland and burning for months across the NT until they burnt through into Western Australia.

Fire map 2000: northern Australia

Fire Scars for 2000. Green areas burnt January-June, Red areas burnt July-December Map: WA DOLA

The formation of the Bushfires Council of the Northern Territory in the early 1960s has assisted landholders to better manage and protect their lands through proactive coordination of operations, liaison, legislative controls, and financial assistance through government sponsored programs.

Burning as a management tool

As the fire history map above shows, the Darwin–Kakadu region has one of the highest proportion of early burning of any region in north Australia. This reflects the high level of prescribed burning that takes place in the early dry season—designed to reduce the grassy fuels for fire later in the year. Consequently, this region has relatively few high intensity late dry-season fires, however there are a number of other issues in fire management that are outlined below.

Fire frequency Top End, NT, 1993-2000

Fire frequency in the Top End of the NT 1993-2000— light blue represents a low fire frequency, grading through green and yellow to red for a high fire frequency

Fire frequency

This fire frequency map shows that the Darwin–Kakadu region has some of the most frequent fires in north Australia. Fires that are too frequent can be damaging to ecosystems, particularly to plants that need some years free of fire in order to establish.

Smoke management

The most populated areas are found in the north-west of the Top End around Darwin, and in the dry season this area lies in the path of the smoke plumes blown by the south-easterly winds from fires in the rest of the Top End and the Gulf. Bushfire smoke can affect human health and as national air quality standards are now in force, the management of smoke from fires is an increasingly important issue for this region.  (See section on air quality in All Regions–Fire.)

Burning which takes place before vegetation dries out is more easily controlled
Photo © Martin Armstrong PWCNT

Urban-rural interface

People living in urban areas often have quite different attitudes to fire management to people living in rural areas. Urban dwellers generally do not manage fire themselves; they are often concerned about smoke pollution and the dangers of frequent burning to life and property and environmental values. Rural dwellers often manage fires themselves and are concerned about the impact of fires on their livelihoods—whether through the burning of fodder, weed control or for bush tucker and cultural reasons. The Darwin–Kakadu region has plenty of both groups and it is important that effective communication and education about fire management occurs in this region.

Weed management

The growth of woody weeds, linked to changed fire regimes, is not as significant a problem in this region as it is further south, however, the spread of so-called "fire weeds"—vegetation that encourages more intense fire regimes—is a major issue. The plants of concern here are mission grass and gamba grass.There is evidence that both plants are spreading in the Darwin–Kakadu area, and both provide high fuel loads for fire often late into the dry season. (see section on fire and weeds).

Awareness and education

Awareness and education about fire ecology and fire management practices is crucial. There is still a general ignorance, if not apathy, in the urban population of Australia toward fire management. There also needs to be improved understanding and knowledge of fire management prescriptions and their effects among the land managers and extension officers from the various government agencies. Every opportunity needs to be taken to involve, educate, and train those people who have a need to use fire in land management.


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

Fax: 08 8922 0833

PO Box 37346