Fire management inadequate to non-existent: ALEC


“Animals dying en masse, fouling up water places. Big wild fires. This is climate change in Central Australia.
“The landscape has been devastated … some real old growth cycads. From what I have been told, the Ghost Gum Walk doesn’t have any ghost gums any more.
“I think Alex Nelson is right: We’ve got more worry with buffel grass than floods in this town. In my opinion, buffel grass is the biggest threat to this part of the world.”
Jimmy Cocking, CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), is still putting the facts together about the savage two-week blaze last month, ravaging the region’s prime tourist attraction, the West MacDonnell Ranges.
But this is what’s emerging: “It is a management issue where resources have not been made available for Parks to do the buffel management that is necessary,” he says.
“Fire management in the Park has been inadequate to non-existent.
“If we are not managing our natural resources we are going to lose what makes the Territory special.”
2529 Jimmy Cocking 130Mr Cocking (pictured) says climate change is making buffel grass an ever growing problem: “Working with traditional owners and Aboriginal rangers, people who’ve been using fire for decades” this weed needs to be brought under control with patch burning in the cool part of the year to “avoid the hot summer burns we have experienced.
“This fire is unprecedented as it is following two dry years as opposed to following wet years” which historically have been providing dangerous fuel loads.
Mr Cocking says: “Parks should be managed for bio-diversity and conservation. By putting Parks under Tourism and Culture we are ignoring that they are parks, we are ignoring the bio-diversity and the cultural importance as well.”
He says fire has a firm place in The Centre, but as a vital management tool, not as an out-of-control, destructive force: “Cool, small fires are good.
“Visitors to the Larapinta Trail need to understand that fire is also part of the landscape, and will be part of actually protecting the natural assets for the long run, as opposed to now, where the whole place is charred.
“We can’t rely on the rain to restore this landscape because buffel is going to spread if there is no management.
“People are not going to want to visit Litchfield full of gamba grass and the MacDonnells full of buffel, and burning annually.
“Small fires are needed to protect the most important assets. We know it’s going to get hotter and drier, but when it rains we can expect more intense rainfall.”
This may cause erosion and even faster spread of buffel, resulting in “a uniform growth of grasses, buffel or spinifex, and if we don’t manage with that in mind, it will all burn in one hit unless the country is broken up using patch burning.”
Should that have been done last year, in the cool months?
“Of course it should have. We need to reflect on what has been done, or hasn’t been done, but we need to look forward from here.
“The Minister responsible does need to commit to resourcing buffel management.”
Did the public and the environmental organisations – including ALEC – sound the alarm bells last winter when no fire mitigation action was taken, given that outstanding experts in the field, including Peter Latz, have been urging for decades to patch burn?
“It exists within the strategic plans for the park. It is mentioned that they need to be doing this. Whether the resources have been allocated is another question. When we see a plan we anticipate it is going to be implemented. Obviously it hasn’t been.”
Does ALEC keep a watching brief?
“We have very limited resources. Unfortunately in this case we do not have the capacity of being a watchdog. When it comes to parks we expect them to be managed the way they are intended to be. There are potentially some systemic issues, but again, we need to learn from this experience and make sure it doesn’t happen like this again.”
Mr Cocking says ALEC staff will be heading out to the West MacDonnell ranges next week to make their own assessments of the damage.
UPDATE 7.50am February 9:
Mr Cocking says: I have been informed that ghost gums do remain on ghost gum walk, but many have been damaged.


  1. The West MacDonnell Ranges are in focus right now. But the awaiting disaster in the East MacDonnell Ranges is very real.
    The Arltunga Historical Reserve is choked with buffel. Where once spinifex clumped without being greedy of ground, now buffel wants it all.
    Walking tracks and vehicle tracks invaded by this land thief.
    As a regular visitor to the area for the last 20 years I have observed a slow but complete change of the landscape. An invasion.
    Interestingly, funds were allocated for the eradication of Athel Pine around the old mission 10 years ago but nothing for buffel.
    The Athel Pine planted by the brothers did no more than provide shade and while introduced had little chance of spreading in that arid area.
    Bureaucrats, greenies and agendas. Where do we go from here?

  2. Firstly, thank you to the 80 or so people who tried to contain fires in Tyerrtye (West Macs National Park).
    This devastating fire is a tragedy: Three major burns in 20 years is a repeated tragedy.
    I still miss the old corkwood groves east of Hugh River who burnt c. 2001.
    Now I think of the places on the Larapinta Trail where we’ve seen and heard moist mulga groves, frog pools, old pythons, ancient Callitris trees, rare plants, persistent possums – have these gone? Are they safe?
    The Macs is a biodiversity hot spot with more species than any desert bioregion in Australia. And more cultural sites and songlines too. These fires are comparable with the 2018 Queensland rainforest burns and the current Tasmanian burns.
    As a desert ecologist and social scientist, I ask why did this happen in the Macs?
    What can we learn and improve upon? Burns will happen again.
    To the why – there is climate change and buffel grass fuels.
    There is also government priorities, funding and practical on-ground actions.
    Parks and Wildlife has been defunded by successive governments to the detriment of landcare and management.
    Whereas government funding to short-term tourism ventures like Uluru field of light and Parrtjima have increased. Has funding for Red Centre Nats and Finke desert race also grown?
    Each are badged as contributing to a “turbo-charged” economy and do contribute to global warming. The costs to the natural systems that sustain humankind and wildlife are high.
    West Macs fires could have been smaller had there been better funding, then sustained strategic prescribed burning by people competent and confident to do so.
    25 years ago a cohort of park managers and fire experts burnt regularly with matches and drip torches in mild conditions.
    People like Latz, Matthews, the Allans then mentored Schubert, Catt and others. Many of them learnt from and worked with experienced Aboriginal people; some still do. They did protective and preventative burning.
    Has this Aboriginal – whitefella culture of burning patches and breaks shifted to one of caution or fear thus inaction?
    We know mitigation is easier, safer and cheaper than defence when fires burn.
    Action is more important than plans, strategies, workshops or even these words.
    Annual investments of several hundred thousand dollars in skilled people who learn and do the practical work of burning in our national parks is vital.

  3. We needed to learn and listen to Peter Latz years ago, we need to respect the knowledge that Fiona has, before we burn out this country and it loses it charm. I’m believing climate change is real with record temperatures this summer in Central Australia breaking the records set in the great drought in the 60s.

  4. The extravagant staging of the Field of Lights or Parrtjima may well add some short lived revenue to the NT Treasury, but the permanent destruction of the unique environment of the West (and East) MacDonnell Ranges will for ever deprive the NT of its secure long term source of attraction.
    Action and adequate resources are needed now. Later will be already too late. Listen to the experts and think ahead.

  5. Would high temperatures in Alice and other places have anything to do with the fact that this year the earth’s path around the sun is at its closest in the solar cycle?


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