Northern Australia beset by floods but Indigenous groups warn of fire risk

The Guardian Wednesday 25 January 2017

Amid rising floodwaters across the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia, Indigenous environmental groups have issued a fire warning.

Heavy rain across the region has sparked flash floods, cutting off communities and knocking out communication lines, and even pushing tropical weather into the normally arid desert region.

A low-pressure system is expected to bring more heavy rain over the next week. Widespread falls of more than 100mm have been recorded across the Top End, including 275mm at Labelle, west of Litchfield national park. Darwin saw its wettest day in five years on Monday, with 145.6mm in 24 hours, and a number of roads around Katherine are under water.

While the immediate responses concentrate on assisting those affected including food drops to some remote communities, the Indigenous Desert Alliance has also urged the immediate start of fire mitigation planning.

The heavy rains have already led to rampant vegetation growth, which will become fire fuel in the dry season.

“We’re jumping the gun a little bit I suppose but it’s one of those conversations that has to happen every time one of these rain events go on, because everyone gets to it a little too late,” said Gareth Catt, spokesman for the alliance of land management groups across the central desert.

“If the weather continues it will be too wet to burn but previous experience is that after these big rain events you get big fire events.”

The last major fire events were in 2011 and 2012 across parts of the central deserts and Catt said he saw “the worst of both”.

“A fire burned something in the vicinity of 3m hectares in one hit,” he said. “If you drove from Perth to Margaret River you’d still be in the fire scar.”

When the large fires burn they destroy vegetation, habitat and wildlife, and the group wants to make plans now to get on to the affected country as soon as it’s dry enough to begin the low-intensity mosaic burning commonly carried out by Indigenous rangers.

However, not all Indigenous-owned land areas have ranger groups and the alliance is also continuing calls for more funding to expand the successful program that trains and employs Indigenous people to care for their country.

Some areas have the capacity to implement fire management but others cover millions of hectares with just a handful of rangers.

Burning on country requires the cooperation and knowledge of traditional owner groups, who have an understanding of the environment, both geographically and culturally.

“But the specific issue we’re talking about is fire and we need to look at the this now because experience has told us if we don’t start thinking about this early, as we get down the track we start to see big fires emerge and a huge response effort is put in,” Catt said.

“If we can get in early and burn country … we can reduce the need to respond so intensively, which is exhausting when it does happen, and produce a much better result for the country.”

Patrick O’Leary, spokesman for Pew Charitable Trusts, said the flooding event and potential fire event came in the context of uncertainty around ranger groups and the Indigenous protected areas many work on.

IPAs cover about 65m hectares of land, including about 43% of the national reserve system.

“The future of IPAs in the longterm is really critical in terms of this kind of land management,” O’Leary told Guardian Australia.

“It creates that strategic framework around which you prioritise things like fire management that you have to roll out throughout the year so you get good bang for your buck in terms of environmental outcomes, and Indigenous outcomes.”

The current federal funding cycle for IPAs ends next financial year and O’Leary said it was a “big question” for the environment and Indigenous affairs portfolio in the next federal budget.

The Guardian Wednesday 25 January 2017