Bushfires torch large areas of northern Australia

Jon Condon, 14/09/2011

Yesterday's map positioning bushfires across northern Australia. Icons signify the location of fires only, not their size. Click on image below for a clearer view. Large tracts of valuable grazing land in Northern Australia’s Barkly Tableland and Victoria River Districts have been burnt-out by major bushfires which started late last week.

Reports are filtering in of huge fires with 40-50km fronts sweeping through both regions since last Friday, following extreme weekend wind conditions gusting to 50 knots.   

There has been a growing sense of unease across much of northern Australia over the past few months because of the enormous body of dry feed present after two boom grass-growing seasons (See Beef Central's August 29 story "Coast-to-coast grass sparks national bushfire warnings"), creating the perfect circumstances for a serious fire season. 

Those concerns proved well-founded when major fires broke out across the NT and Gulf country on Friday.

One enormous southeastern Barkly fire consumed an estimated 6000-7000sq km of country from Tobermorey up through Lake Nash and Argadargada to Manners Creek. Up to 40 percent of Hughes Grazing Co’s 8487sq km Lake Nash property, is said to have been lost, and other properties from 20pc to 30pc.

Various corporate and private landholders in the region pooled resources supplying manpower and equipment to cut firebreaks and back-burn. A squadron of seven graders were working the fire-front on the southeastern Barkly, yet the fire continued to beat them.

Separate huge fires are understood to have broken out near Newcastle Waters and further west on Wave Hill station in the Victoria River District, running into the desert frontage country. One aerial estimate suggested at least 2000sq km of country had been lost in the Wave Hill fire.

“Not only are these fires huge in size, but quite early in the season, by historical standards,” one local landholder said.

One estimate said the impact of the fire on Lake Nash, alone, would represent the loss of grazing capacity for 15,000 head of cattle. Reports suggest cattle losses have been very light, with stock moved to safer locations.

Exacerbating the fuel load problem in some areas has been inability to source enough bought-stock to take advantage of this year’s huge body of feed. AA Company’s massive Brunette Downs Station on the Barkly, for example, currently has 110,000 cattle on its books, but could easily carry another 20,000 head, according to manager Henry Burke.

Late season pressures hamper fire preparation 

Speaking to Beef Central yesterday morning, North Australian Pastoral Co chief executive Nigel Alexander said while his company’s Barkly headquarters, Alexandria had escaped the worst of the weekend fire impact, there had been some fire activity on the company’s  Mittiebah property to the North of Alex.

“Fortunately, the major bushfire that went through that region in recent days went across the top of Mittiebah, and into some Aboriginal Land Corporation-owned country, which had been well-managed previously, with fuel reduction burning programs earlier in the year,” he said.
Mr Alexander said preventative management for bushfires had been difficult to do this year because of the way the season had unfolded.

“Because of the very late start to the season due to the prolonged wet, Alexandria, for example, will have the latest finish to its first-round muster in recent memory. It’s just being completed now, which is probably six or seven weeks later than usual.”

“The flow-on effect of that is that on all places, we will not complete a second round of mustering this year, and that presents a whole lot of other challenges. Some preventative maintenance work for bushfire prevention has not been possible, for example.”

However Mr Alexander said with the huge fuel load present in the region this year, in reality no amount of preventative management would actually stop the fire risk, especially with conditions like those seen on the weekend.

A spark from the blade of a grader striking a rock, or any number of unforeseen events could set off a fire that could very quickly get out of control.

“An inch or two of early rain would go a long way to diluting the current high current fire risk across the Barkly,” Mr Alexander said.

“But one of the encouraging points we’ve noted is that as our staff have gone around doing firebreak and road maintenance, they are bringing up moisture in the soil profile. That gives a lot of hope that as daytime and nightime temperatures start to rise, there should be some response in a green shoot, which could also help reduce the fire risk.”

“Typically at this time of year, all the pasture on the Barkly is hayed-off, protein levels are minimal, and supplementation has started in earnest. But even though that country has hayed off this year, there is still a green base to many tussocks, which is very encouraging.”

Mr Alexander said because of the lateness of the season, NAPCo still had a lot of cattle to turn off the Barkly and channel country this year.

“We have quite a few grassfed cattle to come out of the Channel Country properties – unusually large given our normal grainfed production focus through our Wainui feedlot.”

NAPCo went out into the market and bought 14,000 cattle to place in well-grassed paddocks last year.

“We have the feed this year as well, but over the same time-frame of about four months, we were only able to buy about 4500 head, so we have a lot of under-utilised pasture.”

While those bought cattle would not typically weigh as heavily as company-bred animals, due to different genetics and lack of heterosis, cattle passing through NAPCo’s grain-finishing system this year were some of the heaviest animals ever turned off, Mr Alexander said.

Alice Springs agent Jock McPherson, from Territory Rural MacPherson, speaking prior to the arrival of high winds over the weekend, said there had already been a lot of early season fires around Central Australia. 

“We had this huge growth of feed last year and early this year. Since the onset of winter when things dried off we have seen a quite acute fire problem emerge around Alice Springs,” he said.

Everyone is concerned about what will happen in another month’s time when it gets hotter, but there has already been some significant areas of station country burned.”

“You can drive from Alice to Tennant Creek and see smoke somewhere for the entire trip.”


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