Potential role of ignition management in reducing unplanned burning in Arnhem Land, Australia
Fire management attempts to coerce fire into a desired regime using three primary strategies: prescribed burning, fire suppression and ignition management. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project (WALFA), where prescribed Early Dry Season burning is used to reduce unplanned Late Dry Season burning, is heralded as model for prescribed burning. However, a previous analysis found that Late Dry Season area burnt in WALFA had been reduced further than would be expected based purely on the Early Dry Season treatment area. This study investigated whether treatment has reduced the number and size of unplanned fires. Daily burnt area mapping from MODIS satellite sensors was used to identify individual fires to compare fire activity before and after management was introduced in WALFA (2005) and in a control region in East Arnhem Land. Late Dry Season area burnt reduced after treatment in WALFA but also in the control region. The number of fires in August-October increased after treatment. There is a period from early August until late September when human ignitions can cause huge fires. Late Dry Season area burnt was strongly influenced by the size of the largest single fire and only weakly by the number of ignitions. Early Dry Season area burnt had modest effects on both the number and maximum size of Late Dry Season fires. Eliminating the largest fire in each 1600 km2 sample block would have halved the total Late Dry Season area burnt. A similar reduction could be obtained from a 14% annual treatment with Early Dry Season fire, but this may not reduce the overall area burnt. If overall fire frequency is the main threat to biodiversity in the savannas, then the best solution will be to prevent the small subset of fires that have the potential to become very large.