Fire in Cape York Peninsula

As is the case with much of north Australia, fire plays an important role in the maintenance of ecological systems in Cape York. The country ranges from floodplains to mountains, often with dramatically different rainfall regimes, which has important implications for fire behaviour and management. Fire management is much more of an issue on the drier Western side of the cape than on the eastern side. Outside of these physical parameters though, the issues involved in fire management on Cape York have much in common with those of the other savanna regions.

Fire and land use

  Fire scars in Cape York satellite photo: 2000

 This 2000 satellite photo shows early fires in blue and late fires (after July 31) in red. Cape York has few early fires and many late fires on its western coast

Many areas of Cape York which were once inhabited by Aboriginal people now have few visitors. The Cape York Land Council and others are encouraging traditional people to move back to some of these areas, but in the meantime, they remain unmanaged.

Likewise, the number of people working in the pastoral industry continues to decrease. This means fewer people to help out on the stations, and therefore less hands-on fire management (burning) is taking place. With low cattle prices and rising operational costs, many station owners have been forced to supplement their incomes with off-farm employment. This cuts into the time they can spend looking after their properties. Another contributing factor to the decline of effective fire management has been that as properties have changed hands, land-management knowledge accumulated over many generations is often not passed on.

Burning as a management tool

The burning of pastoral country can help achieve several management ends. Primarily it can help maintain native pasture, as well as help control a range of exotic weeds. Appropriate fire regimes then have the potential to greatly improve the productivity of grazing areas.

Queensland Parks & Wildlife personnel in Cape York also use fire to achieve various goals. Much of the burning is carried out in an attempt to achieve a mosaic of vegetation types akin to that which would have resulted from traditional Aboriginal burning regimes. The timing of these burns depends on the ecology of the particular park, and the tolerance of the species which live there.

Storm burns

Of late, Queensland Parks & Wildlife personnel have been carrying out what are known as 'storm burns'. These are very hot fires lit just before the rains come when fuel levels are very high. These fires are specifically aimed at encouraging the return of native grasses to country which has been thickening up with woody weeds and trees. Incursion of these trees into areas which were previously grassland savannas impacts on biodiversity and threatens the survival of certain species.

Queensland Parks & Wildlife also use fire to control the spread of rainforest into other unique habitats. These burns help maintain maximum biodiversity of the parks. However, like all the other stakeholders in Cape York, National Parks is also severely constrained by a lack of resources - only four rangers are employed to manage all the parks on the Cape. 

Fire and the golden-shouldered parrot

  Golden-shouldered parrot

 The golden-shouldered parrot is declining in Melaleuca woodlands under a regime without intense late fires.

Seed-eating birds such as the golden-shouldered parrot rely on the grasslands for both food and nesting sites. This endangered parrot nests in termite mounds in grasslands in Cape York Peninsula.With recent removal of intense fires, these grasslands are being invaded by dense stands of Melaleuca(see "Melaleuca Invasion"). Butcherbirds can now perch close to the parrots’ nests and attack and kill their fledglings. There is also less food from seed of cockatoo grass.This has lead to a great reduction in the range and abundance of the golden-shouldered parrot.


Given that the various land managers are all experiencing growing constraints to the amount of time and resources they have spare to devote to fire management, cooperation and communication between groups is becoming all the more important. Workshops such as the Cooktown Fire Workshop Fire Stick to the 21st Century held between 12 to 16 July, 1999, are fundamental to achieving and maintaining a productive use of fire in land management strategies.


Mr Peter Thompson
Program Manager
Cape York Peninsula Development Association
Tel: 07 4053 2856

Fax: 07 4053 2942

PO Box 646N