By ADRIAN TOMLINSON
Fire is one of the terrible consequences of buffel, the invasive grass many call a weed, and which is declared as such in neighbouring South Australia.
Buffel grass has an extremely high fuel load and increases the frequency and intensity of fires.
Furthermore, buffel grass responds well to fire. Research suggests it creates a positive feedback loop which promotes further buffel regeneration at the expense of local ecosystems.
Science Direct pulls no punches about the weed that threatens to turn our magnificent landscape into a monoculture:
“Buffel grass is often first to remerge on ash beds, hence forming a positive feedback loop which favours its own regeneration, and modifies the invaded system irreversibly.
“There is some evidence to suggest that the more severe the fire, the more rapid the post-fire recovery of above ground biomass, with one study suggesting that Buffel grass cover doubles after fire.
“Fire immediately reduces competition with surrounding vegetation, and hinders recruitment of juvenile woody vegetation, preventing future recovery of the landscape and making it more vulnerable to rapid colonisation by fast growing species such as Buffel grass.
“Fire also temporarily increases available phosphorus in the soil which Buffel grass may be able to rapidly exploit.”
Yet the NT Government seems to be responding to this emergency without great strategy, judging by answers given to Araluen’s independent MLA Robyn Lambley, who put questions in Parliament suggested by the Alice Springs News.
Ms Lambley asked: “How many hectares of land were subject to preventative aerial incendiary and ground burns across the Northern Territory in the last 12 months?”
The answer indicates that in the Alice Springs Fire Management zone 3,377,000 ha were subject to burning.
The answer then breaks down the burning by district. In the Tanami and Lasseter districts it is reported that 246,000 ha and 180,000 ha, respectively, were burnt via aerial incendiary program.
It is reported less than 13,500 hectares was subject to programmed burns on pastoral properties, 13,000 hectares on Central Australian parks and 5,000 hectares on “Curtain Springs” (the correct name is Curtin Springs).
The amount of land reported to have been subject to preventative burns contrasts starkly to maps of fire scars for 2022 and 2023 from the Northern Australia Fire Information website which shows that very large areas of Central Australia burned in those years.
We do not know nearly enough about how to manage and mitigate buffel grass fires. What we do know suggests fires, both planned or unplanned, without follow up buffel control, risks accelerating buffel invasion and ecosystem transformation.
I have tried to make sense of the NT government buffel grass fire management strategy by reviewing the Alice Springs Regional Bushfire Management Plan.
Unfortunately this document does not state where or how much country will be burnt, or the resources to be expended. Instead it lists the types of categories of land which may be burnt, with no locations or performance measures. Furthermore it does not address the environmental acceptability of burning buffel grass, map buffel grass itself or describe what follow up is required.
Ms Lambley’s question 3 queried how many hectares underwent buffel eradication programs. In response the NT Government provided vague descriptions of the types of places where “mitigation” might occur.
In summary, buffel grass invasion promotes fire and the answers provided offer no assurance that the NT Government cares whether fire regimes are exacerbating the buffel grass invasion or the fire risk it poses.
I suggest the following additional questions should be posed:
• How much of this area burnt was invaded with buffel?
• How much burning was followed up with herbicide treatment or other follow up forms of management?
• How were assets (sacred sites including trees, areas of ecological and cultural significance) protected from the fires?
• Is burning in fact just accelerating the buffel fire feedback loop?
• How much is the NT government investing in research that will increase our ability to respond appropriately to buffel grass fires? Do you consider this level that matches the urgency and magnitude of this threat?
Adrian Tomlinson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Arid Lands Environment Centre in Alice Springs.
PHOTOS by ERWIN CHLANDA: About a square kilometre of mostly buffel burned on March 24 this year on the south-eastern edge of the Alice Springs municipality, destroying three dwellings and burning countless trees. Today buffel – and little else – is growing vigorously, stretching down to the Todd River, a nature playground for nearby residents, where big gumtrees were destroyed.