Stories in this Theme

As is the case with much of north Australia, fire plays an important role in the maintenance of ecological systems in Cape York. The country ranges from floodplains to mountains, often with dramatically different rainfall regimes, which has important implications for fire behaviour and management. Fire management is much more of an issue on the drier Western side of the cape than on the eastern side. Outside of these physical parameters though, the issues involved in fire management on Cape York have much in common with those of the other savanna regions.

Fire affects all aspects of the ecology of the savanna— individual plants, plant communities, animals and their habitats, nutrients, water catchments and down-stream hydrology. In turn, fire regimes have various effects ranging from major short-term impacts associated with frequent high-intensity fires, through to slower, longer-term changes associated with total fire exclusion.

Fire is one of the few tools available to pastoral managers on Cape York Peninsula and substantial sums are spent establishing and maintaining firebreaks through the dry season. Without breaks fire can remove fodder, destroy infrastructure and, under some circumstances, induce thickening of the vegetation and loss of biodiversity.

“Places were open plains and are now encroached with thickening. They increase every year. Now we can’t look up the plain areas. It is not a plain anymore- it has now thickened up”

Traditional fire management is being practiced in Cape York’s Lakefield National Park for the first time in decades. The Kuku Thaypan Traditional Knowledge Recording Project (TKRP) has enabled traditional owners to re-introduce therapeutic burning regimes, whilst documenting the bush wisdom that underpins these practices. The involvement of a JCU Doctorate of Philosophy in Environmental Science student is bringing the assets of contemporary scientific analysis to the process.

Many areas of Cape York Peninsula (CYP) are burnt
every one to two years. Others may not be burnt for a
decade at a time.
We have little understanding of what this means for
the biodiversity
or the plants and animals
of the
peninsula. We know that a lack of fires or repeated
early dry season fires can lead to invasion of grassy
flats by ti
trees, to the detriment of grassland
dependent species.

To ensure fire management is effective and sustainable, good planning must be based on clear objectives and ecological principles.

Rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora) is an invasive weed that is choking out many woodlands and riverside areas throughout northern Queensland. Not only does it create dense thickets, removing pastoral country from production, it is a refuge for feral pigs and removes ground cover promoting erosion along creeks and rivers. Rubber vine is relatively fire sensitive provided the stem base of each plant is heated. Burning in the late dry season will yield high intensity fires that may kill most juvenile plants and 50–70% of adult plants. Fires of this intensity need

Wildfires burn across vast areas of northern Australia every year.  These bushfires are very different from those in
southern states where fuel loads are much lighter and the trees themselves rarely burn.

Frequent and extensive fires in northern Australia are a consequence of the region’s monsoonal climate with its marked summer wet season and long and warm winter dry season. The wet season generates heavy growth of grasses and other herbs, and the trees are continually dropping leaf litter throughout the dry season. This dries out or ‘cures’ during the dry season into tinder-dry, fine fuels for fires. Dry thunderstorms during the build-up and early wet season have always produced lightning.