Rangelands NRM Blog, News & Resources

Martu addressing broad scale fires in the desert

[December 2014]

Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) has been working with traditional owners to develop their capacity to address broad scale fires that have the potential to burn wildly across wide areas of the desert.

KJ’s fire management officer Gareth Catt said there have been several years of above average rainfall, which has contributed to broad scale wildfires over the last few summers.

“Typically, wildfires in the desert are driven by high rainfall, which allows fuel to accumulate in the form of grass,” Mr Catt said.

When fuels dry out, which they normally do over winter, they become highly likely to ignite when the first dry storms roll through around October.

These wildfires can affect large areas and burn far more intensely than fires in the cooler months. They damage the environment and places threatened species and cultural sites at risk. Mining operations can also be affected. There is also a risk to tourists and visitors to the desert.

“Luckily, no one that we know of has been caught out by one of these large fires, but there is a serious risk to people if they are in the area when the spinifex lights up. If you are caught out there, you are on your own,” he said.

Mr Catt said these fires often burn for weeks.

Fire itself isn’t the problem. It is how fire is free to burn in broad sections of the landscape, rather than being controlled when conditions are optimal.

That is why Martu are working to restore a fire pattern that resembles the times of old, when people walked country and actively burnt when condition were optimal.

This a problem over a huge portion of the country that goes largely unnoticed.  If people go into the desert, they are generally there in winter when fire isn’t really a major issue.

The desert isn’t a timeless and unchanging wilderness. It is a landscape that has suffered from the absence of its traditional people and practices. Combined with climate change, there is a challenge ahead for traditional owners and organisations working in this field.

Without intervention the desert will suffer.

Image: A wildfire burning towards Lake Disappointment on the 3 November 2014, as captured by the MODIS satellite. For scale, the lake surface is approximately 38,000 hectares. ©KJ