Save our trees: reduce Buffel, call 000, collaborate


p2468 Walsh tree 3 660Above: Fallen giant south of Heavitree Gap in the devastation of April this year. Thirty-eight trunks fell or were severely damaged by fire. But there are ways we can stop this happening.

“River Red gums are part of the heritage of Alice Springs. They create the beauty of our town. [They] guide our journeys in town or from town to airport … But the trees are at risk. How would Alice look if the river was reduced to just Buffel grass and sand – with no trees?”
p2468 Trees Walsh Henry 1So asked Henry Smith at a meeting last Sunday at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. Respect for our trees and such dire forecasts were foremost for people who met. Fires have killed, felled and scarred hundreds of River Red gums along the Todd River and through the spine of our town. How to prevent and reduce the fires and how to save trees – and the social and natural ecosystems they hold– were the main questions at the meeting.
Right & below left: Todd River Red Amoonguna (2010) and Burnt River Red Amoonguna (2011) by Henry Smith.
Fifteen people had gathered at short notice. The diverse group included artists, ecologists, environmentalists, land managers, park curators, a political advisor and members of Alice Springs Landcare; most were long-term residents of Alice.
As an artist and art teacher, Henry has painted and sculpted more than 40 River Red gums; some of his trees have since vanished into ash and smoke. Like most at the meeting, Henry is also active in landcare being one amongst a group who volunteer hours of labour to remove Buffel grass, protect trees and restore native habitats. The group is small relative to the need on lands around Alice. The meeting complements and will inform government-led process to better manage fires in the Todd River.
p2468 Trees Walsh Henry 2Trees, some more than 300 years old, are being lost to wildfires. Alice Springs residents and visitors see blackened areas of burnt grass and charred trees including along the Todd River. Burnt areas are concentrated near Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap) and north Stuart Highway but occur all along the river including its linear islands.
Left: Henry wrote: “I loved this tree, it had such character …  Over the time that I knew it, it was in constant change, a living breathing large sentinel watching, providing a home for birds and creatures.”
These are neither customary burns nor controlled burns. Extreme Buffel grass fuel loads, rising temperatures and diverse ignitions contribute to the escalation of this problem. (For newcomers, Buffel grass is a weed that thrives with hot season rains and burning.)
Community members and senior staff of government agencies are collaborating on strategies to reduce this loss of River Red gum habitat. They have met twice this year and the Sunday meeting was for volunteers to maintain momentum as we anticipate another meeting. Agencies including the NT Fire and Emergency Services, the Department of Natural Resources, the Alice Springs Town Council and others with formal and varying roles and responsibilities. NTFES have responded to hundreds of calls to ‘grass fires’. They douse trees but can’t put all of them out.
p2468 Trees Walsh fire 430The loss of Alice Springs trees is an old but intensifying problem. At the meeting, Mike Gillam remembered “in 2011, through the centre of town the river was on fire; trees burning everywhere.” Mike has repeatedly alerted the public to values of the trees and written of their neglect.
Right: Buffel grass fires severely scar River Reds and damage their ecology. This fire burnt rapidly on a 6oC night with no wind. It forebodes greater risks with hotter temperatures and higher winds.  Here SE of Taffy Pick crossing. 
In 2011 the document he submitted to government agencies called for a revision of fire management practices. That document was re-submitted to relevant agencies in 2017. At the Sunday meeting, we heard of earlier concerns raised in the 1990s, 1980s … back to 1888!
For example, there was a 1994 Todd and Charles River Master plan. But both the public and public servants have limited evidence of its recommendations being implemented. A hope is that with forthcoming hot weather and extreme fire risks we are better prepared than in 2011.
p2468 Trees Walsh rake 430Amongst volunteers, views about the willingness and capacity of agencies to reduce burns and save burning trees range from optimistic to sceptical. So certain individuals are acting themselves, quietly and productively. Some are working to prevent burns. Others, to extinguish burning trees.
Left: Fiona Walsh works quickly to chip and rake Buffel grass root bases back from tree trunks to reduce the risk of scars that can contribute to internal burning. Burn SE of Taffy Pick crossing. 
Since 2011, Marg Johnson and Dr Ken Johnson have removed Buffel grass from the Todd’s east bank between Stott Bridge and Undoolya Causeway (Alice Springs Resort to Casa Nostra). Today it is the only section of the town’s river where gums have not suffered burn damage. It is a rich example of best practice in caring for our river.
Peter Latz, Mike Gillam, Henry Smith, myself and others with tools and expertise have successfully put out burns in large older trees. We respond ideally before and often after the fire brigade to rake, water and block basal holes that allow air into the burning hollow trunks. We’ve assisted NTFRS and vice versa.
Mike is pioneering techniques that save old trees. “Three hours work for three hundred years” was one triumphant text sent recently. Personal safety is paramount.
p2468 Trees Walsh river 430Henry spoke of the beauty we see in River Red Gums. The trees also offer us humans a green vista, shade, texture, more than 14 foods, medicine and resources. On Arrernte country, Apere (River Red gums) are Ancestral beings who mark Altyerr (Dreaming) places and story lines in this landscape. Many people have written of River Reds as homes to galahs, cockatiels and other birds and animals; each is ‘nature’s boarding house’ or a ‘magic faraway tree’. The trees are community assets.
Hollowness is one exceptional feature of River Red gums. It is both their strength and vulnerability. As hollows form, Reds can grow larger and also host wildlife. But repeated hot fires scar the tree bases. Buffel grass burns dwell and penetrate the scars; then the trunks suck in air and fire upwards. Old and young trees burn inside like multi-branched furnaces. So putting out internal burns and smoulder requires special techniques.
p2468 Trees Walsh hollow 430What can you in the community do? The best prevention is to reduce Buffel grass and allow native plants to flourish. This is possible with persistent and strategic landcare methods. Adopt a tree or adopt an area of bush and join Alice Springs Landcare with people expert in Buffel control.
Left: The hollows of River Red gums opens them to internal burns. It is possible this tree south of the Gap could have been saved by further action after NTFRS visited the area. 
When you see grass or trees on fire, note the street names, dial 000 and ask for the Alice Springs fire station to respond – the earlier the better. Threats to a tree that is older than you, I or any of us is an ecological emergency. Contrary to the views of some, it is possible to extinguish fires in burning trees.
With upcoming Town Council elections, the condition of the river must be on the political agenda of candidates. Advocacy for more resources and trees as a higher priority in government work programs is needed. This is a cross-sector issue of concern to Arrernte people, residents and businesses. We have to collaborate with our public agencies to jointly take responsibility to better care for our river and its trees.
p2468 Trees Walsh sand 430The river is less a battleground to conquer or a playground to exploit and more like a cathedral or national park to honour and respect.  As friends or families, we can walk or ride along the wonderful bike paths of the riverside. The stories of our lives in Alice are interwoven with the trees. What would our town be without its River Red gums?
Right: One effective technique has been to pack basal openings with sand or mud. This reduces air inflow into the hollow trunk and so helps to suffocate the internal fire. Burn by St Philip’s College after NTFRS had dowsed it. 
Today, Sunday 30 July, at 2pm at Olive Pink, there is a launch of the online register of Significant Trees.
Dr Fiona Walsh is an Ethnoecologist with a particular passion for trees. See a recent photo album on flickr here. She also has long experience in customary burning and directed and wrote the documentary ‘Waru: Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity’ which screened on SBS and SBSview for 12 months in 2016.
Below: A volunteer blocks hollows on upper limbs to reduce air flow into the burning trunk. The plugs are later removed to re-open the hollow for wildlife.  
p2468 Trees Walsh arborist 1 430
Below: A qualified, highly experienced arborist volunteers to dowse high burns in hollows. This contributed to saving another tree on a burn by St Philip’s College. He uses harness, ropes, ladder and much skill and fitness. 
p2468 Trees Walsh arborist 2 430


  1. I disagree with the statement these trees are being lost to wildfires.
    These fires are normally deliberately lit, which makes them a result of a lack of respect, vandalism or arson.
    There are fines under the Fire Act / Criminal Code or some such legislation that covers the lighting of bushes or trees.
    Have these provisions ever been used? A lot of the time these are comfort fires lit by illegal campers. Move them out, save some trees.

  2. Regardless of how the fires are lit, the result is still the same.
    Major international cities overseas would kill for a green belt such as what we have in Alice Springs, particularly as it satisfies on so many levels: culturally, environmentally, and good old fashioned aesthetically.
    It is great to see our community being proactive in stopping the destruction long before it is irreversible. It is also encouraging to see a Landcare unit being established to do preventative measures such as buffel removal and allowing the re-establishment of the native flora. Programs such as these have been a great success in such places as Sydney Harbour, where these kind of community based activities have done wonders in returning natural vegetation from what looked like a biological disaster zone, and in saving the extinction of a beautiful she-oak exclusive to the Harbour.
    With a sound community base, I am sure the efforts in grant funding from the various levels of government will be forthcoming. It just answers so many factors that purveyors of grants request: community involvement, local cultural interaction, and a positive, visible outcome.

  3. I walk my dog along South Terrace near the Gapview Hotel… there’s a stretch of river there that I am in mourning for. To walk the middle line between harassing campers and conserving our glorious trees… cut the grass. All of it. Then poison what sprouts. Every month. The buffel grass seems to guarantee that they go up in smoke…and people camp where they’re protected from view. It’s a win-win, Ray; even if your primary concern is denying someone a place to camp, you can look green doing it.

  4. Thankyou Alice News for this article. I am part of a neighbourhood Land Care group that focusses on the Ankerre Ankerre Coolabah Swamp area. We clear weeds, rubbish, buffel from around the base of larger trees. It is slow work for only 3 people. So far this year no trees in the Coolabah region have gone up in smoke.

  5. @ David Nixon (Posted July 31, 2017 at 12:48 pm): It may be recalled that in the early 2000s there was an attempt made to control buffel and couch grass in the Todd River from Heavitree Gap to Taffy Pick Crossing.
    It was intended to be the first stage of rejuvenating the Todd and Charles rivers which was one of the major projects of the Alice in 10 program (i.e. “Alice Springs in 10 years”) announced soon after Denis Burke became Chief Minister early in 1999 and which continued for a time after Labor took office under Clare Martin.
    One can still encounter fading and defaced “Alice in 10” promotional signs in various spots along the Todd River.
    The grass eradication work commenced after the ultra wet years of 2000 and 2001, and also included removal of sand from the riverbed at Heavitree Gap.
    The grass was sprayed with herbicide, which I recall was done by Aboriginal workers from Tangentyere Council.
    Once the grass had died and was dry, it was cleared by controlled burning. For just that short stretch of the river the cost was about $400,000, from memory.
    Both my father and I, independently of each other, predicted on air the entire exercise would prove to be a complete waste of time and taxpayers’ money, and so it proved to be as there was no follow-up or extension of the work upstream in succeeding years.
    The problem of grass fires causing the loss of the river red gums in the Todd River has been raised many times, including (for example) by Senator Bernie Kilgariff in April 1987, shortly before he retired from his political career.
    That’s 30 years ago, and with so many “hot” topics (pardon the pun) that we all go on about, here we still are talking about it.

  6. These Red gums are irreplaceable, an adequate response that ensures the survival of the trees is paramount. The current approach only stops the spread of fire and does little to save burnt gums.
    Yes, the answer requires more funding, more awareness, legislation, enforcement, lobbying and education. But it will all start with community discourse and what a fine start.

  7. I wrote to a council hopeful just recently, expressing my ideas about the river. I lived in Bundaberg, and Brisbane for many years, both cities/towns that have a river running through them. Both of these towns treated the river as just a part of life, just being there, for many years. It is only in the last 20 – 30 years that these towns really embraced the river. They looked after the banks, they cleaned them up and stopped using them as a dumping ground and beautified them. Now, as a result, they are a focal point for the community, festivals, and lifestyles. Some detractors might say, there is a big difference, the Todd River is dry. I have lived here long enough to understand the Territory attitude, and by my interpretation of that, the response would be why should a lack of water stop us.
    I remember attending the Alice in 10 meetings and remember the aerial photos identifying the sacred trees, as defined by the TOs. The idea was that whatever work was done, those trees would be protected.
    We have a world renowned feature here in the centre of our town. The area used for the Henly-on-Todd looks beautiful because it is used for something and it receives attention. The rest of it looks like an unkempt, untidy backyard of an abandoned house.
    Cleaning it up and using the “dredged” sand to build up levee banks could mitigate the flood risk, removing the choking buffel and new, non-sacred trees further down would free up the flow, allowing peak water heights to be reduced, allowing the land adjacent to the river to be used for a multitude of activities. Preventing the restrictions down stream could protect any infrastructure that was put in place.
    With well thought out manicuring of these banks, it could be a beautiful public space we all could enjoy. I remember in my recent WA holiday, seeing a couple of towns that had massive skate parks, beautifully manicured and maintained, that were on display for all, and integrated into the towns’ open spaces. Families were there enjoying BBQs whilst the kids enjoyed skate boarding. It was not in some out of the way, fenced off dimly lit area, where most kids were afraid to go. I expect responses to this to explain all the reasons it won’t work, I would rather hear how it could.

  8. Alice Springs has how many able-bodied men and women on welfare? And doesn’t most welfare these days carry a certain requirement to work at least a few hours a fortnight?
    Alice Springs also has a river running through the middle of town in dire need of relatively easy labour-intensive maintenance.
    Why can’t those two be brought together?


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