Understanding and Mitigating Hazards

Project Status:

Australia’s tropical savannas are extremely fire-prone – approximately 20% of the savanna region (which covers a quarter of Australia) is currently burnt each year. Annual fire occurrence is particularly frequent across the higher rainfall (more than 1000mm) far northern regions, mostly by severe late dry season fires. The current pattern of late dry season fires impacts on a broad range issues, including community safety and health, production (e.g. pastoral enterprise) and environmental (e.g. soil erosion, stream health, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions) values.

This project is:

• Describing environmental risks and providing mapping tools for remote community planning purposes.

• Quantifying the risks posed by flammable exotic grasses (e.g. gamba and mission grasses)

• Exploring fire management challenges in the Gulf of Carpentaria region near the Northern Territory and Queensland border.

Savanna fire management for north Australia – project overview

This project is investigating two major components:

  1. Savanna burning
  2. Management of high biomass weeds

Savanna burning

This aspect builds on the substantial work previously undertaken within the Bushfire CRC, which developed a comprehensive algorithm for mapping fire effects on tropical savanna vegetation. This data and the annual fire history mapping data were applied in preliminary analyses to assess the risk to biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services in general under various climate scenarios.

This is being extended by gathering finer scaled data and undertaking more detailed assessments of these and other criteria in regions defined as being at greatest risk.

Preliminary analyses suggests that the most harmful effects to ecosystem services occur predominantly on Indigenous owned and/or managed lands. Therefore, the project will involve consultation with lead Indigenous groups such as the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and various land councils to determine those areas where it would be most feasible to undertake the detailed analyses through the collation of fine scale spatial data leading to research determining community resilience to those risks.

Managing flammable high biomass grassy weeds

A range of invasive grasses have spread rapidly in tropical Australia over the past two decades, substantially altering the savanna, riparian and wetland ecosystems. These grasses include gamba grass, mission grass, annual mission grass, grader grass, para grass, olive hymenachne and alemann grass.

The impacts are primarily due to the substantial change in fire regime, with more frequent fires occurring at intensities higher than ever recorded previously in tropical northern Australia ecosystems.

In the Northern Territory, special fire zones have already been declared based on the increased fuel loads and fire risk resulting from high-biomass grasses. There is a lack of decision support tools or models to effectively inform the longer-term consequences of grass invasion or the optimal decisions regarding the allocation of resources to manage this fire risk. The lack of these tools directly affects determinations about where to invest scarce resources to have the greatest impact on reducing risk and improving community resilience.

A previous focus area for this work was on mulga landscapes. This has been revised to focus on savanna burning in Gulf of Carpentaria country.

To date, the team has developed and refined a fire severity mapping algorithm, building upon existing satellite-derived modelling and fire history mapping to assess the risk of fire to biodiversity, emissions and ecosystem services. The 2014 northern Australia fire season was assessed using this method, and then compared with the 15-year average.

Finer-scale fire mapping analysis has been undertaken around two remote Northern Territorian communities; Gunbalanya and Ngukurr. This has included workshops with Indigenous ranger groups to establish the use of existing mapping products and assess community governance issues affecting resilience in the face of recurring natural hazards (cyclones, floods, fires). Team members have also visited the Indigenous communities of Borroloola and Robinson River in the Gulf region near the NT and Queensland border to discuss associated research with key local community members.

The project has also finalised the publication of an expansive carbon accounting text through CSIRO Publishing. This book, published in July 2015, outlines all the components of the methodology for the lower rainfall region, as these components need to published in the peer reviewed literature to be accepted through the process into Commonwealth Law.

The project will improve the efficacy of prescribed burning programs by providing more evidence on the impact of burning on biodiversity, surface and groundwater quality and quantity, and carbon sequestration. Burn program planners and managers are seeking better tools for forecasting the impact of burn programs on the capacity of the soils to deliver the environmental services required. These tools are efficient survey designs and sampling techniques that are integrated with new predictive spatial models. The application of these tools will give fire management agencies more confidence when assessing the cumulative environmental cost and benefits of the burn programs they propose.

13 October, 2016
New journal articles and reports on CRC research are available online.
Andrew Edwards measures the diameter of a tree killed by the fire.
26 February, 2016
This time last week (it is 2:37pm as I type) I was wandering around Mataranka Station, four hours south of Darwin, looking at trees. Not my usual Friday afternoon, I can tell you.
Dr Andrew Edwards (left) measures the diameter of a tree killed by the fire, while Grigorijs Goldbergs (right) records the data.
25 February, 2016
CRC researchers have been gathering data on how high severity fires in northern Australia can affect the health of trees
Researchers and end-users in Darwin.
18 February, 2016
End-users and researchers met in Darwin this week to discuss the range of CRC research underway across northern Australia.
CRC board members with book authors Jeremy Russell-Smith, Andrews Edwards and local Independent MP Gerry Wood.
16 July, 2015
The potential of using bushfire as a management tool to reduce Northern Australia’s carbon footprint shows how science can support the development of new industries in northern Australia.
Workshop participants at Ngukurr.
5 June, 2015
CRC researchers have spent four days deep in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory discussing the community resilience studies underway in the communities of Ngukurr and Gunbalanya.
Assessing ecological risk with indigenous communities: Tropical savannas Northern Australia
25 Aug 2014

This project builds upon substantial work previously undertaken within the facility of the Bushfire CRC “North Australia fire mapping” project.

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Andrew Edwards Conference Poster 2016
14 Aug 2016

Providing mapping tools from detailed research, modelling and analysis of the occurrence and effects of fire in savanna landscapes in northern Australia to assist with fire management

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