Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Australian Northern Savannahs – Managing Fire Regimes in Savannahs by Applying Aboriginal Approaches to Contemporary Global Problems

The most fire-prone biome on Earth is savannahs, and the burning of savannahs is an important source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. In this paper Russell-Smith et al. describe the application of a commercial fire management program that was implemented on Aboriginal lands in Northern Australia over an area of 28,000 km2.  The reinstatement of traditional Aboriginal approaches to savannah management, in particular, a strategic burning program in the early dry season, in combination with an emissions accounting methodology for savannah burning that has been developed recently. The program has reduced emissions of accountable GHGs (methane, nitrous oxide) by 37.7%, relative to the 10-year emissions baseline. Also, the program has been found to be delivering social, biodiversity, and long-term sequestration of biomass benefits. Russell-Smith et al. suggest this methodological approach may have considerable potential for application in other savannah settings that are prone to fire.

Savannahs are broadly defined as tropical and subtropical grasslands, which are characterised by the C4 photosynthetic pathway, with densities of tree cover that varies, and they are the most fire-prone ecosystems on Earth. A 6th of the land surface of the Earth is occupied by savannahs, and they support a 10th of the human populations, and though land use changes are not certain, it is likely that these systems will undergo twice the rate of conversion as compared to tropical forests (White et al., 2000; Grace et al., 2006). In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60% of savannahs, ⅔ of human populations live in these areas, with other major occurrences, in order of geographic extent, in Australia, South America and Asia (White et al., 2000; Lehmann et al., 2011). As much as 10% of annual total global carbon emissions and 44% of estimated carbon emissions from all sources of burning biomass (IPCC 2007; van der Werf et al., 2010), is contributed to by the deliberate burning of savannahs for a variety of agricultural, pastoral and traditional management purposes.

In this paper Russell-Smith et al. described the context of contemporary prescribed burning practices in the northern savannah regions of Australia. They explored the application of a novel greenhouse gas abatement project for the burning of savannahs which combines Aboriginal traditional management practices with an emissions accounting framework that was developed recently which was designed to deliver prescribed burning at landscape scales that was ecologically and economically sustainable. This approach has considerable potential for application in savannah settings around the world that are prone to fire. Greenhouse emissions reduction and carbon storage schemes that are broadly similar that use prescribed fire management have been described for fire-prone landscapes in Europe (Narayan et al., 2007; Vilen & Fernandes, 2011) and North America (Hurteau et al., 2008; Wiedinmyer & Hurteau, 2010).

Contemporary burning in the northern savannahs of Australia

Each year an average of about 20% of the 1.9 million km2 of Australia’s savannahs are burned, mostly in the latter part of the dry season that is 7-8 months long (April to November), under fire-weather conditions that are progressively severe. It is mostly in infertile areas that such fire activity occurs, which is distributed unevenly across the landscape predominantly under extensive, economically marginal pastoral (beef cattle) management systems, in northern regions that are typically rugged, and that are biodiverse, and that experience high levels of rainfall of more than 600 mm/year. Very little burning is undertaken, conversely, in areas that are more fertile, productive settings, in spite of the potential for applying fires that are relatively intense to combat the encroachment of woody vegetation in some pastoral regions (Williams et al., 2002).

Much of the land that is frequently fire-affected is under Aboriginal ownership – either freehold title or, increasingly, under title arrangements that are non-exclusive (known as “native title”), as part of recent formal Australian State and territory Government recognition of prior Aboriginal custodianship. Aboriginal people constitute the majority of the rural population outside urban settlements in remote North Australian territories and, in spite of being “land-rich”, they remain severely disadvantaged economically and socially (Russell-Smith et al., 2009b; Whitehead et al., 2009).

Fires are lit deliberately for a variety of traditional Aboriginal and other purposes of land management; some that are ignited by lightning strikes are confined to the onset of the stormy monsoonal season, which typically begins between October and November (Russell-Smith et al., 2007). A combination of minimal infrastructure and rural populations that are very sparsely settled, less than 0.1 person/km2, has resulted in a limited capacity to manage escaped fires, therefore, fire regimes in many regional settings are characterised by the frequent, annual-biennial recurrence of large fires over more than 1,000 km2 in area, wild fires in the late dry season. It has been increasingly recognised that these wild fires are having drastic regional impacts on sustainable land use (Russell-Smith et al., 2003b), biodiversity (Woinarski et al., 2011; Russell-Smith, 2012), and GHG emissions and carbon storage (Murphy et al., 2010; Williams et al., 2010).

The collapse of Aboriginal society that dates from the 19th century is associated with the development of these contemporary patterns following the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal methods of managing fire (Ritchie, 2009; Cook et al., 2012). Burning was undertaken, traditionally, throughout the year over much of northern Australia, with the focus being on implementing “cleaning of country” management by the intensive application of small patchy burns in the early-mid dry season (Russel-Smith et al., 2003b). In West Arnhem Land which is owned by the Aboriginal People, e.g., the peak of the traditional burning season, known as wurrgeng, which literally means the season for concerted fire management, coincides with the coolest part of the dry season in the middle of the year (Garde et al., 2009). Finding the means in order to reinstate this type of prescribed strategic management and the associated social and cultural opportunities for Aboriginal custodians, is at the heart of the West Arnhem Land fire management program described below, as well as more general projects to burn savannahs elsewhere across fire-prone northern Australia

Rekindling fire management in western Arnhem Land

It is indicated by archaeological evidence that in the western part of the Arnhem Land Plateau for at least 50,000 years (Roberts et al., 1993). Since the arrived in Australia of Aboriginal people the climate has undergone some dramatic changes which led to large changes in the environment the people had to adapt to, one of these was the dramatic rise in the level of the ocean. At 18,000 years ago it was possible to walk from the Arnhem Land Plateau to New Guinea of the present across a plain that is now the Arafura Sea (Mulvaney & Kamminga, 1999).

This remarkable continuity of indigenous stewardship persisted, with little change, well after the arrival of Europeans in the mid-19th century, in some parts of Arnhem Land, with a few families who had decided not to be drawn into church missions and government settlements remained on their estates, continuing to implements the key elements of the ancient land management traditions until the present. However, these indigenous land management practices for the most part declined. The most important of these practices, fire management on a landscape scale in concert with the annual monsoonal cycle of rainfall and drying (Yibarbuk et al., 2001; Cooke, 2009).

As the country dried out each year the Aboriginal land owners began moving through their estates and lighting many small fires in order to make the country easier to move through, to keep forests “open“ and not choked with shrubs, to flush out game, to encourage the growth of new grass that attracts and fattens game animals and to fulfil cultural obligations (Garde et al., 2009). The patterning of these fires formed mosaics of burned and unburned land as the dry season progressed. The effectiveness of this fine scale patterning depended on many groups applying systematically what has aptly been called “fire-stick farming” (Jones, 1969).

The depopulation of the people of Arnhem Land, that was associated mostly with disease and drift of populations into mission settlements, and the antipathy of white settlers and government to traditional Aboriginals burning practices (Ritchie, 2009) had the result of the replacement of environmentally sustainable regimes in which they comprised mosaics with regimes that involved regimes that were characterised by intense homogeneous wildfires in the late dry season that burned thousands of km2 of land. In these new fire regimes there was little internal patchiness which had deleterious impacts on flora that were vulnerable to fire, habitats, and sedentary fauna (Woniarski et al., 2005; Yates et al., 2008; Russell-Smith, J., et al., 2012).

Senior indigenous land owners, some of whom had grown up on their ancestral lands with little outside influence, began a dialogue with scientists in the late 20th century about the requirements for culturally and ecologically sustainable fire management that eventually resulted in the reinstatement of ancient fire-management practices, updated with 20th century technologies (Cooke, 2009; Whitehead et al., 2009). This cultural exchange was mediated by an emerging younger generation who were committed to developing culturally appropriate practices of land management and opportunities for employment on their traditional homelands. Fire mapping by satellites showed the extent of contemporary wildfire in the late dry season and, conversely, the relative absence of traditional burning in the early dry season. All involved readily understood the implications, with elders stressing the need to “burn early”, which resulted in the controlling of late dry season wildfires.

New ways of imposing strategically patterned burning on the landscape began to be tested, with moderate government funding and a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of indigenous landowners. Incendiary capsules were dropped from helicopters by indigenous ranger groups, and back burning was undertaken from vehicle tracks where that was possible. It soon became evident that in the absence of large resident populations a modern method could be used to emulate ancient techniques.

It has been demonstrated by science that by returning to “managed fire” not only benefits savannah biodiversity but also reduces the emission of greenhouse gas on an industrial scale as was found by research programs that have been undertaken since 2000. This realisation, as well as the adoption of emissions accounting methods (DCCEE 2012), has underpinned the development of the first savannah burning greenhouse gas emissions offset program in the world, the 28,000 km2 West Arnhem Land Fire abatement Project (WALFA). WALFA has operated successfully as a voluntary environmental service project since 2005, offsetting more than 100,000 tCO2 eq/year under a 17 year contract to a multinational energy corporation.

Indigenous people are now setting benchmark standards the landscape-scale fire management and, in the process, reforging ancient links between a people and their physical and cultural heritage.

West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project

After years of building up capacity and emissions research, West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA) became fully operational in 2005 as a voluntary emissions offset program under a 17 year arrangement with a multinational energy corporation, and formal endorsement of the project-specific accounting methodology was received from the Australian Government.


Russell-Smith, J., et al. (2013). "Managing fire regimes in north Australian savannahs: applying Aboriginal approaches to contemporary global problems." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11(s1): e55-e63.


Author: M. H. Monroe
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