Fire Management

The mosaic produced by aerial and ground burning by rangers and traditional owners in the Tanami in the 2009-10 season

The CLC's fire management program is extremely important to the natural resource management of Central Australia. It now uses cutting-edge technology to tackle the vast workload involved in reducing the wildfire risk across Aboriginal lands in the region.

Background

For many thousands of years, fire management has played a critical role in the lives of Central Australia’s Aboriginal people.

For Aboriginal people there were and are many uses for fire that serve physical, social, cultural, and spiritual, as well as ecological, needs.

Regular patch burning reduced the risk of wildfires, assisted in the hunting process by forcing wildlife out of vegetation, and promoted fresh growth of grasses and important bushfoods. It also resulted in a fine-grained mosaic of varied ages of vegetation which promoted the success and resilience of a range of plant and animal species - many of which are now rare and endangered.

With the loss of people from vast areas of the landscape, the vegetation grew unchecked except by wildfire events and this resulted in uniform-aged vegetation with similar flammability levels across many hundreds of kilometres of arid Australia.

Without the regular burning of small areas, the risk of wildfires grows and in turn, increases the threat to biodiversity, cultural sites and infrastructure in the area.

Contemporary fire management

Today, increasing emphasis is being placed on active fire management in the region by combining the knowledge of thousands of years of Aboriginal practice with remote sensing technology, contemporary fire management techniques and the technical expertise of Bushfires NT.

The CLC is involved in strategic fire management activities aimed at raising remote indigenous community awareness of contemporary concepts and issues surrounding fire management. It has applied state-of-the-art technology such as using remote sensing to map historic fire activity and plan seasonal fire management at a landscape-scale, and uses aerial incendiary devices as part of annual aerial burning programs to enable traditional owners to burn areas that are otherwise too remote to access from the ground.

In planning fire activities CLC staff collaborate with staff from Bushfires NT, sharing technical knowledge and resources, and then engage community members in planning which areas of country to burn each season, taking into consideration current fuel loads, traditional owners’ aspirations, and past fire history. Traditional owners then work closely with Aboriginal rangers and other CLC staff to undertake a combination of early season ground-based and aerial burns to protect infrastructure and cultural and natural resource assets and to break up areas that have remained unburnt for long periods.

The Warlu Committee

Significant fire management capacity has been developed in Aboriginal ranger groups and links formed between traditional owners (through the Central Land Council) and Bushfires NT. This allows both traditional owners and Aboriginal ranger groups to be involved in the decision making and implementation processes for fire management across vast areas of Aboriginal Land Trust lands. A great example of this collaborative planning approach is seen in annual fire planning workshops held by the Warlu (Fire) Committee – a committee made up of Aboriginal representatives from all communities in the Tanami and Barkly regions.

The Warlu Committee meets annually and works with the CLC  and Bushfires NT to review the previous fire season and make strategic decisions about which areas need aerial burning and ground-based burning programs in the coming fire season. Committee members then convey the decisions made to community members and the Aboriginal Ranger groups in their regions.

Another example of this successful collaborative approach is the Ntaria Strategic Fire Management project, which traverses Aboriginal land, mining lease and national park. The project involved constructing strategically located firebreaks linking previously burnt areas and making use of natural firebreaks such as cliff faces. The planning involved the Bushfires NT, Parks and Wildlife NT, Magellan Petroleum and police and the work was carried out by the CLC Tjuwanpa ranger group.

The fire management programs the CLC has facilitated in the Tanami and Barkly regions are important first steps in addressing wildfire as a key threatening process across vast areas of the Central Australian landscape. It is hoped regular strategic burning will enhance habitat of threatened or declining species such as the bilby, great desert skink, mulgara, emu and bustard as well as protect the breeding habitats of migratory and nomadic waterbirds

Preventing large, destructive late-season wildfires by burning patches of landscape early in the season (when the vegetation and whether conditions limit the spread of fire) and creating a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches means that animals such as bilbies do not have to travel across vast open areas to access food resources, thereby limiting their exposure to predators.

 Climate change and the carbon footprint 

The contribution wildfires make to the Northern Territory’s carbon footprint is also enormous and another reason to prevent unmanaged fires.

The CLC and traditional owners from the northern Tanami have worked with the CSIRO to develop a methodology for the collection of data by community-based ranger groups which will help in vegetation management for greenhouse gas mitigation.

The CLC is part of ongoing discussions about how Aboriginal communities might effectively engage in the developing carbon economy in ways that are compatible with their aspirations for remaining on country and actively managing land.