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HomeIssue 8Another river giant goes up in flames

Another river giant goes up in flames

p2492 Tree fire call 660
UPDATE, Friday 22 September, 12.55pm: A prompt phone call to 000 and effective action by the fire brigade looks to have saved this tree. See bottom for full story. 
Our photos were taken yesterday at midday as the call was being made to 000. Passers-by had stopped when they saw smoke coming out of the hollows of this river giant, undoubtedly hundreds of years old.
p2492 Tree fire hollow 1 250Within minutes flames were visible, first in one hollow, then the other.
There appeared to have been a grass fire around the tree which had been put out, but was starting to take hold again.
This follows an unprecedented loss of mature trees  to apparent arson attacks over recent months that has fire-fighters and local citizen groups banding together to come up with strategies to save our trees.
These include reducing buffel grass in their vicinity as a protective measure and new fire-fighting techniques to combat the chimney effect of flames taking hold in the hollows.
Meanwhile, Member for Namatjira Chansey Paech has  invited Expressions of Interest from community members to join the Lhere Mparntwe (leer-ra m-barn-twa) Working Group.
p2492 Tree fire hollow 2 300“Lhere Mparntwe is the name given by the local Arrernte people for the iconic Todd River, which is home to large, mature red gums that are listed as Sacred Sites,” Mr Paech said.
“These trees are among the first jewels that tourists notice as they drive into Alice Springs.
“Sadly, a large number of (deliberate and illegally lit) grass fires within the Todd River and Charles River have destroyed these trees, some believed to be about 500 years old.
“A community response is now needed to what is a growing community problem. That’s why this Working Group has been created, bringing key stakeholders and community members together who will advise Government on how to best manage the natural resources within the Todd River and its immediate catchment, including the Charles River.
“I invite anyone with a passion for the protection of the Todd River to submit an EOI so they can contribute their expertise to the Working Group.”
Up to four community members of the Working Group and a Chairperson will be appointed by the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources to promote culturally respectful care of these rivers, with at least one community member being an Aboriginal person able to speak about, and advise on, Arrernte cultural values.
Written EOIs should demonstrate the contribution that the nominee can make to the Working Group and should be directed to:
Lhere Mparntwe (Todd River) Working Group Secretariat
PO Box 1120 Alice Springs NT 0870
Or email
p2492 Tree fire out 430UPDATE, Friday 22 September, 12.55pm: 
A prompt phone call to 000 and effective action by the fire brigade looks to have saved this tree.
The call was made by Candice Appleby who just happened to be driving by and who also happens to be the Significant Tree Officer with Land for Wildlife. After calling she stayed on to see what would happen.
She says the firies arrived about 25 minutes after the call. First they put out the grass fire around the tree, then they poured a lot of water into the hollows from above and, using a special device, also introduced water from a hollow at the base of the tree.
Driving by today at about 11am, there was no smoke coming from the hollows of the tree.
p2492 Tree fire basal hollow 330Station Officer Adrian Sgarbossa said the device used is something that they have made up themselves – a long metal rod with a fitting at the end with lots of holes. This allows water to be fed up through the basal hollow into the trunk and squirted in all directions.
Ms Appleby calls on anyone seeing fires, especially in the Todd, to call 000. Don’t be complacent, and assume someone else will have made the call, she urges.
Meanwhile, the best protection from fire for trees is to reduce the buffel grass growing around them, which local landcare groups are dedicating themselves to and could always do with more volunteers.
As part of her job Ms Appleby maintains a Significant Tree Register for the Northern Territory. There are 29 Significant Trees listed for Central Australia and 220 Territory-wide. The nomination process is active and applies not only to native trees: there are multiple characteristics considered including beauty and age, as well as cultural and historical meaning or association.
Find out more here.


  1. I know this tree very well. Full of hollows that provide vital shelter for owls and microbats it’s arguably the most important for 100 metres in any direction. We greatly appreciate the efforts and inventiveness of fire-fighters in saving this highly valuable giant. This river red gum was identified as very high risk and volunteers recently slashed the waist high buffel and raked away the deep accumulated leaf litter in an effort to improve its chances of survival.

  2. Not knowing the tree or the circumstances surrounding the fire, however from my personal experience the main culprit (apart from the arsonist) for spreading fire into the river gums is not buffel grass, but the dreaded invasive couch grass.
    This is not to absolve buffel, which is where a lot of fires are started and then spread to the couch grass which tends to like our local river courses and would appear to clump around trees and when set on fire, burns hotter and for longer enabling the fire to spread into these poor old hollow gum trees.

  3. I’m still trying to unravel the story behind this tree’s ignition, probably from an existing basal hollow, but this is not always the case. Yesterday at sunset we returned to this magnificent tree and an old fire scar (dead timber on the north side of the tree) was alight. Fanned by a strong wind this decaying section would have burned through and formed a new entry hole to the centre of the tree, full of cavernous hollows.
    The importance of returning to ‘extinguished’ tree fires regularly cannot be over emphasised. Tragically, when people actually see smoke/fire coming out of hollows in the canopy it is often too little, too late. The expense of calling out the fire brigade (who may be otherwise deployed) to deal with an obvious flare up combined with the massive risks of losing the tree, make close monitoring vital and cost effective by a country mile. Unfortunately, this ‘community’ monitoring is ad hoc at best.
    Incidentally, the most recent flare up was caused by a patch of compost, very fine vegetative material mixed through soil that had continued to smoulder unseen 100 – 200 mm underground, shielded from the fire hoses. Hot dry winds on Saturday had dried out the ground surrounding the tree trunk and the smoulder zone had crept about 1.5 metres to ignite the tree trunk.
    Bob Taylor’s right, couch grass Cynodon dactylon is responsible for a great many tree losses in desert rivers. In the past this was the main problem for fire managers working in the Todd River. Couch remains a great threat but for the time being buffel is ascendant. Land care volunteers give no quarter to either of these invasive grasses. The tree in question had couch grass on the underhanging banks but buffel, including numerous woody rhizomes just below the surface and mixed with leaf litter, formed the greater fuel load in this case. Occasionally, subsurface smoulders can travel many metres through termite hollowed tree roots and cause the ignition of nearby trees. Moreover, the ferocity of buffel fuelled fires often dries out and ignites the leafy Eucalypt regrowth, a stress response from one or more previous fires, that grows around the base of too many river giants. In combination these fuels can flare into the higher canopy where terminal hollows are also catching alight. Fuel reduction is key and our proactive efforts across the government and community sector are woefully inadequate, a dire situation that will be further highlighted in coming months.


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