Fire scars in Arnhem Land
The blue areas are early fires which are often controlled burns and the red areas show late fires which can be more intense wildfires

Fire and land use

Like many of the remote savanna regions, Arnhem Land has seen dramatic changes in recent decades in the number and distribution of people living there. Vast areas of country which were once inhabited are now almost empty and thus largely unmanaged. In particular, the western side of Arnhem land, which backs onto Kakadu National Park, has very few residents. This area, as well as central Arnhem Land, is very isolated. As road access is limited, you can only get into this country by walking, or flying in by helicopter.

Fire regimes

Fire management in these areas then is limited. This has implications for the ecological health of these parts of Arnhem land, but also for adjacent land managers. For example, Kakadu National Park regularly experiences wildfires which come in on very large fronts having originated in Western Arnhem Land.

Fire frequency in Arnhem Land, 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 

As shown in this satellite image of fire scars for 1999, fires in Arnhem land tend to be later inthe year than fire in the western Top End of the NT. Partly this is because the grassy fuel for fire in Arnhem Land dries out later in the year than it does further west, delaying the onset of fires.Another reason, however, is that because Arnhem Land is less managed, fires tend to start from naturalcauses, or by accident later in the dry season — when fuel is tinder-dry.

The frequency of fire also has implications for landscape health.  For example, very frequent fires destroy many plant communities.  As shown in the diagram above, in Arnhem Land fire frequency is high on the eastern lowlands and low in the stony escarpment country in the west. As a whole, however, the western end of the Top End has more frequent fires that Arnhem Land — much of this is due to controlled burning.

Fire-management initiatives

Early burning near Bulman in central Arnhem Land
Beginnings of a partnership with business. Adrian Ashley and Danny Brumel use a quadbike donated by the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Foundation to carry out early burning near Bulman in central Arnhem Land. Rio Tinto and other mining companies across northern Australia are actively engaging with landowners to discuss collaborative strategies for managing fire in the savannas 

Various organisations are cooperating in research and planning in an attempt to start to manage some of these areas. The Northern Land Council is encouraging people to move back to some of these areas, or at least to return periodically to perform management activities that the land is missing out on. The NT Bushfires Council is also active in these areas, both in terms of research and management initiatives. All of these organisations employ participatory planning techniques to ensure that Aboriginal people are equal partners in the process.

It should be noted that in those parts of Arnhem land where Aboriginal people are living, in some of the coastal areas, traditional fire regimes are maintained. The incidence of wildfires in these parts of Arnhem Land is markedly less.