Friday, June 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 42Only firefighters decide on how to deal with individual fires

Only firefighters decide on how to deal with individual fires


Have firefighters watched some trees in the Todd burn? “Yes,” says Senior Station Fire Officer in Alice Springs, John Kleeman, but only when any further effort to fight the fire would be “to no avail”.
Have firefighters’ decisions on how to respond to individual fires had anything to do with agreements or instructions from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA)?
“No,” says Mr Kleeman and “No,” says AAPA.
The Alice Springs News Online has spoken to Mr Kleeman and Dr Ben Scambary, the CEO of AAPA in order to clarify a heated debate that has developed in response to our report of November 7, ‘Spot a tree? Chop it down!’.
Mr Kleeman condemns as an “absolute crime” and “a blight on the environment” the deliberate burning of trees in and along the river. He says the fire service responds to all reports of fires and either puts them out or renders them harmless. He is aware that many trees in the river are sacred but he is “not privy” to which ones are and which ones are not.
“We treat them all the same,” he says, but “unfortunately” many of the very old gums are riddled with white ant and hollowed out and once fire gets well established in the base it’s extremely difficult to extinguish.
“We have tried blocking them off and filling them up with water but it’s been to no avail.
“We have 3000 litres in our tankers and I’ve sent crews back again and again, but once that chimneying effect has started, it’s all but impossible to put out. ”
While firefighters have given up on some trees, he says they have also saved many: “I assure you we do the best we can with the resources we’ve got.”
He says the fire service notifies the Town Council if a burning tree or “carcass” presents a danger to the public. It’s then council’s responsibility to remove the danger. He recognises that the carcasses could become significant hazards if they are picked up and carried in a future flood, and also that it looks “shocking” to see “all those magnificent gums lying on their side – a real tragedy”.
Dr Scambary, in a written statement, says that AAPA has a “good working relationship” with both the fire service and the Town Council.
“The AAPA has never issued an instruction not to respond to fires or other emergency circumstances due to sacred site protection matters.  On the contrary, the protection and survival of sacred sites and sacred trees is of great importance to Aboriginal custodians and the AAPA.
“The AAPA will continue to work with both the Town Council and the Fire and Rescue Service to support coordinated and planned action for community safety and the protection of sacred sites.”
On the matters of fire prevention and the removal of dead trees, he says:
“The AAPA has issued Authority Certificates to the Town Council for fire abatement management works in the Charles and Todd Rivers; and for emergency and public safety works within the town.”
The certificate for the rivers, issued following coordinated discussions with council and the fire service, and in consultation with Aboriginal custodians, allows for “managed reduction of the potential fuel load” and the “creation and maintenance of suitable fire control lines”.
“These works can include the removal of dead limbs and other matter close to trees.”
The certificate for the town allows for “trees to be felled, and removal of hazardous materials or substantially dangerous debris in circumstances where these trees pose an immediate threat to public safety”.
Says Dr Scambary: “Custodians of sacred sites in Alice Springs support the prevention of uncontrolled and deliberately lit fires in the Todd and Charles Rivers as many trees (and other features) in these areas are sacred sites.
“Custodians have expressed distress about the loss of sacred trees and have consistently called for action to prevent damage to sacred sites.  Custodians also take seriously the need to make areas safe in emergency circumstances.”
Pictured: Top – A severely damaged old tree in the Todd River, alongside Tuncks Causeway. Above right – The same tree: new growth can be seen spouting from the seemingly devastated trunk.


  1. I am very glad to hear that AAPA has never impeded the efforts of fire fighters in their attempt to extinguish fires when trees in the Todd River have been set alight.
    I speculated that they had done so, and it seems I was wrong.
    I apologise to any I may have offended.

  2. Re the question: ‘Have firefighters watched some trees in the Todd burn?’ and the response from John Kleeman, that this has ‘only [happened] when any further effort to fight the fire would be “to no avail”‘.
    Can we have an assurance from Mr Kleeman that, regardless of whatever may have happened in the past, in future firefighters will make attempts, when possible, to douse fires around the base of trees before the trees themselves are alight? From my observations such efforts have not been occurring in at least some instances where they have appeared to be both possible and sensible.
    With regards to Mr Kleeman’s later statement that “We have tried blocking them off and filling them up with water but it’s been to no avail. … once that chimneying effect has started, it’s all but impossible to put out.” What he says is undoubtedly true in some instances. On the other hand, private citizens have successfully extinguished some of these ‘smoking chimneys’ by taking the actions Kleeman outlines, on the day after the trees have caught fire, in cases where there is no sign that the firefighters have tried to plug the ‘chimneys’ or douse the smouldering hollows.
    Perhaps there is a disconnect between Mr Kleeman’s strong desire to see trees saved, and what is actually happening in some of these cases.

  3. Hal, thank-you for the apology.
    Kieran, I’m not reassured by what I see in your image of a burnt out giant bursting into new life. The lightweight dead branches on the ground are highly combustible and a potential threat to the regeneration that is now taking place. They should be mulched. The larger tangle of logs are acting as “bollards” and are providing some protection for new growth and so we should be cautious about what is removed and how.
    In coming weeks we will notice conspicuous new growth on damaged red gums everywhere but many will develop as a shadow of their pre-fire glory days. For some, the hardwood (dead skeleton) of the tree has been so completely burnt out that only a weakened outer layer of living tissue remains. And some fires have continued burning well below the surface. Re-growth from this fragile rim is likely to result in multiple smaller trunks that are unstable and even more prone to future fires. And so the future fire threat continues to elevate.
    I have photographs of mature trees that were reduced to basal re-growth a couple of years ago. This has now been converted into standing dead timber and the next round of post-fire re-growth has appeared. Clearly we are going backwards.
    River red gums are long-lived and maximum ages of between 500-1000 years are quoted in the literature but unfortunately not everyone realizes the fragility of that legacy. We are seeing hundreds of years of growth being wiped away in the historical blink of an eye and much of this is preventable.
    The giants that were smoldering in the river a couple of months ago were already impressive trees in 1888 when Constable W. G. South intervened to protect the trees growing in the Todd River. His actions in a frontier settlement are a remarkable high point in the story of the Todd River but I suspect that 2011 will go down in history as one of the low points.

  4. The question now is where do we go from here?
    Fires willfully lit in the Todd River have reduced many of the trees to standing shadows or fallen carcasses. Much of the damage has been inflicted this year, but not all. The vandalism, the arson, has been a concern for many years.
    And it’s not just the arson. The accumulated sand deposited from previous floods and the invasive buffel and couch have combined with the burned down trees to make our once beautiful river a clogged storm water drain.
    Ugly begets ugly. Not just arboreal bodies are found in the riverbed in the light of day. Crime scene tape joins green cans as a visual reminder that the Todd River winding its way through Alice Springs now instils fear.
    Except for the memories, there is nothing down there to be proud of anymore. It has become a shame.
    With work, the Todd River could, once again, be a core feature of Alice Springs, one to be proud of. A good place to start would be to remove the dead wood, dredge the accumulated sand and toss the cultural demarcation disputes.
    It belongs to all of us. Not to just a few, but to all.

  5. Bob, I won’t gloss over the unacceptable tree damage that has occurred but I do have some sympathy for the frustration that fire-fighters must be feeling as they battle with the consequences of deliberately lit fires and the near absence of fire-prevention. The inconsistent ‘follow up’ to put out still burning trees is very difficult to explain away. How much of this is due to a lack of resources, training, competing priorities or a desire to get back to the station and be at the ready for emergency call-outs? It is virtually impossible for an observer to say. In the past I’ve observed a mixture of great professionalism and on occasion, fire-fighting ‘tactics’ that make little sense to me.
    There is much room for improvement in every direction of this tragic story but most of the unrealized gains are yet to be made through land management / fire prevention.
    The apprehension of one person who was allegedly lighting fires is also very good news and recent increases in penalties will help. But the community should expect more arrests in a river corridor that is barely 200 metres wide in the future.
    Perhaps we could all be more vigilant. We should definitely find our voices and make sure the authorities understand the high value this town places on the Todd River and its trees. ‘Fire-bugs’ come in all forms and we don’t condemn their immediate family, colleagues or the wider community for the actions of individuals. Or do we?

  6. Hal, You put your finger on it when you said: Work! The Todd River is a natural system, albeit disfigured and weed infested. Dredging sand from the channels is financially costly and given the nature of rivers, temporary. The Town Council would achieve more if it addressed the causes including the practice of grading and denuding sub-divisional drains so they keep dumping silt into the Todd.
    Sand mining /dredging is a sure way to further reduce the already low germination rates of river gum seedlings and is unlikely to do much for the fire threat under discussion. If the Council wants a source of fill / sand then it should install traps in the barren drains for that purpose. The river is not a construction site and needs to be managed with care. But I see very little evidence of proactive land management. If Council lacks the resources or skills to manage fuel loads including the removal of buffel grass then they need support to overcome these deficiencies.
    Finally, I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make about “cultural demarcation disputes” and its relevance to the current management of the Todd – unless the registration and protection of sacred sites somehow impacts negatively on those entrusted with managing the river. That possibility beggars belief.
    Does mainstream recognition of the Todd River gums on Greening Australia’s Register of Significant Trees somehow diminish the importance of the river to Arrernte people? The Todd River is a special place with many layers of history, significance and meaning. The river corridor is zoned “(CN) Conservation” and I believe that most residents of Alice Springs would like to see a professional land care approach replace the current crisis management that is failing our river. In this regard I can find very little that separates the expectations of informed people whether they are custodians or ecologists, black or white.


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