Fire alarm rings for arid Australia

Fire alarm rings for arid Australia

4 November 2009

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Australia — As Australia’s leading researchers of bush fires warn that the arid country is facing one of its most dangerous summers, authorities in Darwin have sought tougher penalties for arsonists.

In response to February’s deadly outbreaks in the southern state of Victoria in which more than 170 people died, the Northern Territory government has introduced laws to parliament that would jail arsonists for up to 15 years, a tripling of previous sentences.

While their secretive crimes are difficult to prosecute because few are caught in the act and telling forensic evidence is often destroyed, the damage arsonists can inflict is immense.

The vast savannahs of the Northern Territory are scorched every year by blazes that can cover hundreds of square kilometres, and while much pastoral land is subjected to controlled burn-offs to reduce the threat of bush fires, many are intentionally lit.

“Most of them – and we’re talking about 90 per cent – are started by humans. Many in the rural areas around population centres are deliberately lit, although a large number are accidentally lit by people working with machinery,” said Steve Sutton, the director of Bushfires NT, a Northern Territory government agency.

“We do occasionally have a success and we pursue the perpetrators vigorously. We’ve had the opportunity from time to time to catch people from a helicopter, but that is quite rare and as you know all they need is a match,” Mr Sutton said. “There are notorious arsonists who do it for a thrill.”

Seventy per cent of the continent’s bush fires occur in the tropical grasslands, where vicious walls of flame regularly tear across a largely flat region. On a recent visit to Australia’s rugged Northern Territory, their destructive wake was clearly evident from a dirt road that links the Arnhem and Stuart highways south-east of Darwin, where endless tracts of vegetation had been left blackened and the earth charred.

The conflagrations that scar northern Australia are usually far less ferocious than those that menace heavily populated areas in the south-east. But there are unmistakable signs that foreign species of plants, in particular dense and fast-growing gamba grass, have made the savannahs more susceptible to extreme fires.

“While there is a fundamental difference in that northern Australia has grass fires and southern Australia has forest fires, the changing fuel dynamic in northern Australia is starting to threaten lives because of much more intense fire,” said Mr Sutton, as he stood in tussocks of gamba grass near Darwin airport.

The Northern Territory has two separate bush fire seasons. In the tropics, the drier winter months are the most hazardous. Unusually mild and humid conditions in the past couple of months gave way suddenly to a hot, blustery spell that unleashed devastating blazes. Hundreds of kilometres to the south, emergency crews have been preparing for a summer of baking hot temperatures and strong winds that have the potential to turn desiccated parts of the desert into infernos.

“There are usually four causes [of bush fires]; lightning, man, woman and child, basically. A lot of these fires are deliberately lit unfortunately and there’s nothing much we can do with that. We’ve got legislation, and since Black Saturday [the day of the fires in February in Victoria] we have increased our police patrols,” said Paul Herrick, a senior officer at the Northern Territory fire and rescue service.

“In one way we are a bit fortunate. We don’t have the great stands of forest and mountains that Victoria and the highlands of New South Wales do and the difficulty in getting into those places. However, the large distances between centres [in the Northern Territory] do allow fire to go unchecked for quite some time,” Mr Herrick said.

The Northern Territory is roughly the combined size of France, Spain and Italy.

European settlement resulted in many indigenous groups being forced from customary lands, leaving large expanses of wilderness exposed to nature’s extremes.

“Much of northern Australia goes through intense wildfires every year because they are unmanaged landscapes now and what we’re doing is reimposing indigenous knowledge,” said Joe Morrison, chief executive officer of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Vulnerable regions need all the help they can get after the Melbourne-based Co-operative Research Centre for Bushfires warned of a high fire danger in almost every Australian state and territory as summer approaches.

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