Australia’s tropical Outback is a place of outstandingly dramatic and contrasting seasons – the lush, rejuvenating monsoon season and the long parched ‘dry’ – each of which portrays the landscape so differently.
The transition from almost fluorescent green grass to straw brown is a slow one, wrought by endless sunny and rainless days. However change is inevitable, and by roughly June/July each year the tropical savannahs and woodlands have been transformed to a state where the grass, often in great abundance, is ready and willing to burn.
For images and to read in the Unsealed 4X4 magazine, CLICK HERE.
Aboriginal people traditionally lit fires according to established patterns to help provide food and basically manage the countryside. The wisdom to do so was gained over many thousands of years.
These days Aboriginals, rangers, graziers and other fire-savvy land managers continue to burn in the early part of the dry season in a controlled manner – often based on that Indigenous knowledge. Fires may also be lit at the start of the wet season (these mimic natural lightning-ignited fires).
The extent of burning in the north often surprises many visitors. However this practice is very important for the tropical ecology (except rainforests). Ideally it creates a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country that benefits wildlife, and also helps to protect against later hot wildfires.
Wallabies, kangaroos and cattle thrive on the fresh green grass that sprouts after early ‘dry season’ and ‘storm season’ fires. Some pigeon and parrot species such as the endangered Golden Shouldered Parrot rely on open, burnt ground. Here they feed on fallen grass seed that easily survives ‘cool’ fires. Seeds from some plants require heat or smoke before they germinate – the beautiful Banksias being a famous example.
Unburnt areas are a haven for wildlife that needs grass… from that basic animal of the food chain, the grasshopper, through to various birds, mammals and reptiles.
Fires that occur later in the Dry are regarded as wildfires. They typically burn out vast areas causing untold environmental damage and destroying fodder. They often threaten homesteads, campers and travellers. Large wildfires also produce huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide; they release carbon; and their flames can damage ‘fire-sensitive’ rainforests.
Some of these wildfires are caused by escaped campfires (or other accidents), but most are started by arsonists. Because of their size, these blazes are typically hard to contain. Fire fighters usually have to resort to back-burning off roads or dozed control lines (often in the cool of the night) to have any chance of success.
Being confronted by a fire of any type can be disconcerting to say the least. Fortunately smoke usually signals fair warning, enabling time to drive well away. In more urgent situations, the sight of smoke alerts people of the chance to move to bare ground or the relative shelter of a creek or gully.
Fire burns much more quickly going uphill than downhill… a point to keep in mind. In fact, a fire’s ‘rate of spread’ doubles for every 10 degrees of uphill slope; and conversely halves when burning downhill. In a real emergency when a fire front is approaching in savannah grasslands (only), it is possible to find an area of shorter grass, light it up yourself, and then move onto the burnt ground when (and where) it’s safest to do so.
This may mean leaping or driving over some flames. However if you wait for the wind to momentarily ease and approach from the quieter-burning rear part of the fire, the risk is much reduced. And certainly better than being confronted by an advancing solid wall of flame! Either way, this approach should only be used in a genuine emergency.
This method, often known as ‘making a blackout’ (of a different kind), will not work in a forest fire or normal bush fire as we generally know it, as the flames are moving high through the foliage and are not just confined to the ground.
Avoiding parking or camping in long grass is a wise idea, too. It is the unexpected that often catches people out – a wind swirling through a campfire surrounded by dry grass or dry leaf litter can be a real drama!
While fire in Australia’s north is very much part of the scene, as with anything else in the bush dealing with it is very much a matter of common sense; and trusting instincts and advice. Above all else, it’s about being careful. Just once in our 30-odd years of frequent camping we have been threatened by a bushfire. Seeing the distant smoke we simply packed up and moved on… away from the danger!
Check out Ranger Barry’s Bio here…