Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia -
Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995
Bushfires Council, the community and you
Bushfires Council of the NT
The Bushfires Council (BFC) as a land management agency has the responsibility to advise on 'best practice' for bushfire management. Current control measures include advances in fire research that maintain biodiversity and which are within the constraints of resources, legislation and community demands.
Bushfire prevention and control within the Northern Territory is the responsibility of individual landowners. The NT legislation ensures local community involvement and allows for both prescribed burning and Aboriginal traditional practices. This paper discusses the issues of fire management while at the same time meeting the needs of rural residents.
BFC clients can be identified as the managers and owners of rural and pastoral land of the Northern Territory. These include Aboriginal Land Trusts and Associations, block owners, Territory and local government, pastoral, mining, tourist industries, volunteer fire fighters and bushfire brigades.
Because of the differing physical and social environments of the above clients, their response to fire protection and management tends to differ. Neither is totally right nor totally wrong in the wider Territory context, although they all understand the environments in which they work. For example, 'traditional Aboriginal fire regimes' (Haynes 1985) are still practised in the Territory and Aboriginals have granted or under claim 49% of the 1.3 million square kilometres of the Territory (Department of Lands, Housing and Local Government 1994). In built-up areas, exclusion of fire is a legitimate objective provided other means of fuel reduction are used, for example slashing.
The Bushfires Council of the Northern Territory was set up as a result of the passing of the Bushfires Ordinance of 1965. In introducing the Bill to the leader of the house, Assistant Administrator Allen Atkins homed in on these principles, which were debated and supported by members:
- The Bushfires Council was to direct operations relating to the fire control in the 'Bush', in areas outside the main towns where fire services were already operating.
- Its aim was to give a boost to the self help endeavours which were taking place on pastoral and agricultural properties and be responsible for fire control in vast areas of sparsely settled Crown land.
- To succeed it had to give support and gain cooperation of the NT pastoralists who would be well represented on the Council. Representatives would be appointed from most government departments (branches) having a role in the administration of the Crown land and from experts who were involved in the existing fire service (Lovegrove 1993, 4-5).
The physically large area of responsibility and insufficient funding ensured the drafted legislation identified land managers as being responsible for fire prevention and management of their land. The Council was to be a proactive support structure for these land managers.
The Bushfires Council and its Regional Committees consist of 59 statutorily appointed members. The majority are land managers or owners of properties throughout the Territory. Four government bodies are represented: Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (DPIF), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Bureau of Meteorology and NT Fire Service.
The nine Regional Committees consist of five community members and the Regional Fire Control Officer. The Chairman of each Committee is on the 14 member Bushfires Council. These statutory appointments ensure a diverse representation from the rural sector of the Territory. Therefore the Bushfires Council and its Regional Committees are fully aware of the clients' needs and are able to ensure implementation of programs and objectives to meet these needs.
The Council has adopted policies and guidelines designed to achieve its fire management objectives. They include:
- protection of life, assets and the environment from the effects of uncontrolled fire;
- maintenance of natural resources, including native ecosystems and productive lands, by the use of appropriate fire regimes.
The policy stresses the need for individual landowners, be they public or private, to have fire management plans in place which are in the main devoted to the prevention of large intense fires. Direct fire suppression measures are used only when human life, assets or environmental values are threatened.
The Bushfires Council sees its primary role as one of coordination of pre-suppression work to achieve consistent levels of practice most suited to the differing areas of the Northern Territory.
Since my appointment in May 1992, a large part of my time has been spent addressing community concerns. For example, the largest voice against the use of fire as a land management tool comes from the urban dweller or 'towny' who considers fire is destructive and pollutes the atmosphere, smoke being the main issue that surfaces. Prescribed burning has received constant criticism with petitions and 'letters to the editor'. No distinction is made, nor understood by most of the protesters, between prescribed burning early in the dry season and out of control fires late in the dry season.
Persons who write to the press and provide their name and address are invited to my office to discuss their problem. The results are not always what they expect. They provide their problems, I provide my problems, then I offer them my job, seat and desk, and then we seek jointly to resolve all the issues. They soon discover their problem becomes a lot harder to manage on the other side of the desk. Touch wood, this method has reduced a large number of 'letters to the editor' and I still have my job.
To address community concerns regarding fire management in the NT, the Bushfires Council recently released Bushfire Management in the Northern Territory. This document was developed from public comments on a discussion paper to formalise a Northern Territory Fire Management Strategy.
The primary purposes of the fire management strategy are:
- to prevent and control wildfires,
- to manage fire in non-urban areas in order to maintain diversity of species and ecosystems,
- to manage fire so as to improve future rural productivity,
- to reduce the total area burnt by wildfires in the Northern Territory,
- to achieve greater community involvement in bushfire management on freehold, leasehold and public land, and
- to achieve a balanced use of fire on natural, agricultural or pastoral lands to achieve specific management objectives.
A number of factors were taken into consideration:
- high intensity fires during severe weather cause most damage to the environment, as well as providing the greatest potential threat to human life and property.
- fire protection and control measures should be undertaken to minimise the impact of uncontrolled fires.
- landowners have primary responsibility for fire management of land under their control.
- fire management in pastoral areas is designed to limit the amount of damage by fire to productive land and to prevent late dry season fires from running unchecked through less productive country.
- certain species of flora and fauna can be threatened by inappropriate fire regimes, or by fire exclusion.
Fire management and control
The aims of the fire management strategy may be achieved in part through the following actions:
Fire management plans should be produced for all significant areas of vegetated lands. Such plans should:
- the identification of assets and values including flora and fauna.
- the ecological role of fire in relation to the particular ecosystems involved.
- protection or management objectives and their priorities.
- maintenance of the assets and values identified, together with the species and communities represented.
- prescribe the most appropriate strategies required for the prevention, detection and suppression of wildfire damage and to meet other stated fire management objectives.
- consider environment impacts, aesthetics and smoke management in fire management proposals.
- consider other appropriate fuel management measures and specify the most appropriate.
- complement plans relating to adjacent lands.
- be monitored and reviewed regularly (AFAC, 1994).
Access trails and fire breaks
Access trails are strips of country cleared of fuel in accordance with soil conservation standards to provide access for fire control equipment to areas threatened by fire. Wider burnt buffer zones, often up to two kilometres wide, are used to protect productive land from fire originating on unproductive country. Access trails, firebreaks and buffer zones break country up into areas more manageable for fire control purposes.
Preventive burning is the most economical and commonly used method of fuel reduction, best carried out early in the dry season when fire weather is mild and fires are more likely to self-extinguish.
Aerial controlled burning
This function is carried out by the property owner using Bushfires Council's incendiary capsules dropped from either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, mainly in the Top End. The cost to property owners is 50% of operational time over the property.
Knowledge of local fuel types and weather conditions is important in determining the timing and extent of this type of burning.
Intense fires for specific land management objectives
Very hot fires may control or eradicate woody or noxious weeds and are best achieved during the fire danger period. However, they require far more stringent fire control measures.
Late season burning
The opportunity may present late in the fire season after early rains to burn rank foliage and achieve desired changes in grass composition.
There is a wider need to reduce late, hot, dry season fires on road verges. For aesthetic and safety reasons, early roadside burning is essential to avoid adverse visitor reaction and to ensure adequate buffers/firebreaks.
The Bushfires Council regards fire suppression as a measure to be adopted only when life and property are in imminent danger.
It has adopted a policy to establish and assist with training of volunteer bushfire brigades in closely settled rural areas of the Northern Territory.In more remote areas, the Council encourages cooperation between adjoining landowners and supervises fire suppression operations on large or complex fires.
Given that water is seldom available in the Northern Territory in sufficient quantities for fire fighting, back burning and dry fire fighting are necessary where preventive measures have been unsuccessful in containing a fire.
The Bushfires Council assists in and promotes a program of early preventive burning consistent with periods of safe weather and optimum fuel conditions. Often these conditions result in poor smoke dispersal or accumulation over urban centres.
The Bushfires Council has undertaken to develop more accurate smoke dispersal and trajectory prediction models with the assistance of the Bureau of Meteorology.
Current preventive burning practice is consistent with low intensity fires of short duration. Typically, only a small percentage of available fuel is burnt and smoke emissions contain a high level of moisture and particles of ash.
Late season fires burn more extensively, more completely and smoke emissions contain a wider range of gaseous material.
The Bushfires Council is mindful of these findings which it has incorporated in current policy and practice.
The harmful effects of smoke and levels of environmental acceptance will continue to be monitored and recommended guidelines will be observed.
The NT is fortunate to have extensive research conducted into fire and the effect of fire on the biota. Research and data collection continue into fire behaviour and ecology. This is a long-term exercise and includes work done by the DPIF, Northern Territory University (NTU), the Conservation Commission of the NT (CCNT) and CSIRO on burning patterns and biological effects, including the contribution gasses from grassland fires may have on the Greenhouse effect. Other fire management bodies in Australia could benefit from these scientific findings, particularly in north Queensland and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Annual public awareness campaigns emphasise the responsibility of land managers in fire management and the need to take preventive measures.
While the farming and pastoral community is generally well versed in fire management practices, the need remains to increase the level of awareness among urban and rural-fringe dwellers. Increased public awareness is therefore concentrated during the months leading up to the fire danger period.
The Bushfires Council aims to increase participation by the rural community and other land managers in 'competency-based' training courses it offers throughout the Northern Territory. Recently completed competency-based standards should unite fire prevention methods Australia wide.
Certificate courses are run on both a formal and an opportunistic basis and consist of a balance of theory and practical work integrated with actual fire fighting, hazard reduction exercises and equipment maintenance.
There is a need to educate the community about the prevention of bushfires, using prescribed burning and the role of fire in the environment. The Council is developing a package to introduce fire ecology and management into the NT school curricula.
- Experience of applying fire suppression in the NT has proven wild fires can occur beyond the resources of control. These fires generally occur during severe weather conditions from July to November in the northern half of the NT and December to March in the south.
- Studies in Australia and America have found 'important ecological relationships among plants, animals and fire' (de Golia 1989). NT experiments of 'annual early and late dry season and biennial early season fires resulted in little floristic or structural differences after thirteen years of treatment in the forest and twelve years in the woodland' (Bowman, Wilson & Hooper 1988). Alternatively there is fire sensitive vegetation such as cypress pine (Callitris intratropica) and monsoon forest. Conflicting research findings continue to challenge the fire manager.
- Indigenous people have burnt off grass for hunting, clearing, signalling and various other reasons. This practice still exists in the NT and Haynes (1985) notes reports of a 'compulsive mania' to burn where Aboriginals have lived for some time away from their land. Just as Aboriginals use fire for specific purposes, land managers and the community need to recognise fire as a legitimate tool in bushfire control. In stating fire is a legitimate tool, there must be careful consideration of fire on the biota married with rural community needs.
- The Bushfires Act 1985 under section 48 provides a maximum fine of $1000 for a person found 'setting fires'. The difficulty in achieving prosecutions is reflected in so few successful fines. Legislation changes of increased penalties would fail as a deterrent due to the vast remoteness of the NT.
- The community's knowledge of rural fires is one of conjecture. An assertive effort of researchers, practitioners and interested knowledgeable persons promoting the positives of fire management is an ongoing necessity!
- Now is the time for you to go forth and inform the multitude.
Australian Academy of Science, 1981. Fire and the Australian Biota, AAS, Canberra.
Australian Fire Authority Council, 1994. Rural Fire Management Policy (Draft).
Bowman DMJS, Wilson BA & Hooper RJ, 1988. Response of eucalyptus forest and woodland to four fire regimes at Munmarlary, NT, Australian Journal of Ecology 76, 215-232.
Bushfires Council NT, 1994. Bushfire Management in the Northern Territory, Darwin.
de Golia J, 1989. FIRE: The Story behind a Force of Nature, Dong A, Seoul.
Haynes CD, 1985. The pattern and ecology of munwag: traditional Aboriginal fire regimes in north central Arnhemland, in MG Ridpath & LK Corbett (eds), Ecology of the Wet-Dry Tropics, Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia, Vol. 13, Ecological Society of Australia, Canberra, 203-214.
Lovegrove T, 1993. An Appreciation of the Problems at the Interface of the Northern Territory Fire Service and the Bushfires Council of the Northern Territory.
NT Department of Lands, 1993. Aboriginal Land Summary, Darwin.
NT Department of Lands, Housing and Local Government, 1994. Annual Report 1993/94, Darwin.
Northern Territory of Australia (1988). Bushfires Act.
Stocker GC, 1966. Effects of fires on vegetation in the Northern Territory, Australian Forestry Journal 30, 223-230.