The ring of bushfires around Mparntwe (Alice Springs) has blanketed the town in thick smoke and ash for the past few days, adding to the more than 40 separate active blazes in the Northern Territory.
A spokesperson for Bushfires NT told Crikey that at as of November 7, it was tracking at least 31 of these active fires. They estimated that 26.9 million hectares had burned territory-wide (approximately 20% of the NT) since the beginning of the 2023 fire season, with 16.9 million hectares concentrated in Central Australia’s Barkly and Alice Springs region alone. For the whole of 2023, the spokesperson said the NT had experienced a total of 727 fires and 65 fire ban days.
Figures from Northern Australia Fire Information (NAFI) differ slightly — Charles Darwin University fire mapping expert Rohan Fisher told Crikey that the NT’s total burn size for 2023 was approximately 33 million hectares. That’s 1.5 times the size of Victoria.
He calculated the Tanami fire had decimated around 10 million hectares from September to date and 11.7 million hectares in total for 2023. That’s half the size of Victoria, and as of October 30, on par with the square landmass from Sydney to Melbourne.
Fisher said that it was only when he overlaid the Tanami fire across the two major southeast capital cities that the severe extent of the blaze started to resonate with a non-NT audience.
“When people saw Sydney and Melbourne, that actually made sense to them,” he said.
“Australia has such an urban southeast-focused country and culture. Very few people have a good sense of geography and an appreciation of the scale of the continent we deal with.”
The feedback, said Fisher, is also indicative of poor fire literacy, with many people simply advising “You’ve just got to get in there and put those fires out as soon as they occur”. It’s an early intervention approach aligned with mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s 2020 high-tech instant fire pick-up “Fire Shield plan”, and one that Fisher says demonstrates little understanding of remoteness, resourcing, and the role of fire in the north of Australia.
“It’s problematic because (a) it’s impossible over the vast scale of Australia where most fires occur, and (b) it also fails to recognise that fires aren’t bad per se. They’re a really important part of the human ecological reality of this continent. Healthy Country needs fires and putting them out doesn’t really help do that.”
In October, Bushfires NT in collaboration with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) conducted a rare round of mid-season firefighting training in an attempt to bolster local forces. It’s projected that as much as 80% of the territory will burn by March 2024.
Fisher said the focus of fires in the NT needs to shift from the “impossible idea” of putting them out to proper investment in land management programs. Although many on-Country burning regimes by land owners, Indigenous ranger groups and land councils did assist in reducing the severity of recent blazes, he said that most programs are still in their infancy and have not yet had enough time to properly protect Country from the ferocity of the fires blitzing Central Australia.
“There are a lot of people out on Country that put so much hard work into trying to reduce these fires and they really take it personally. It’s hard for them to see that Country burn. But you really need that intensity of work over an eight to 10-year period to build up those complex fuel mosaics,” Fisher said.
“Had they had the resources to do what they were really doing in earnest over the last few years eight years ago, we would have seen a different story now.”
The Bushfires NT spokesperson told Crikey that looking forward, primary areas of concern were concentrated in central and southern NT “due to high fuel loads, low rainfall and low soil moisture”.
Fisher acknowledged that climate change and cyclical weather events were making things worse, but reiterated these were not the primary cause: “The major issue is that we dispossessed people from their country 150 years ago so there’s not people managing that land anymore, every year in quite a comprehensive way. That’s what allows the build-up of fuel.”