What is the size of the fires in northern Australia? An interactive map indicates that they have burned an area bigger than Spain.
In recent months, vast wildfires have ravaged a considerable portion of northern Australia, surpassing the total area burned by several countries such as Spain.
According to experts, the large fires are mainly caused by an above-average amount of fuel that has accumulated during the recent wet years of La Niña. Additionally, the presence of an invasive type of grass has also played a role in increasing the severity of the burns.
Based on data from satellite hotspot detection, it is estimated that over 610,000 square kilometers of land in northern Australia were burned in 2023. This exceeds the size of several countries, including Spain, Thailand, and Cameroon.
Fires are frequent in the northern parts of Australia, specifically in the tropical savanna regions of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland, where controlled burns are essential for the ecosystem.
You can view the scope of fires that have occurred since September, depicted through animated Nasa hotspot data. This is then followed by the overall amount of land that has been burned by fires in 2023, using information from North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information (Nafi).
In the Northern Territory, some 310,000 sq km have burned up to the end of October. According to an analysis of Nafi data by Guardian Australia, this is the third largest fire year for the NT since 2000, with only 2011 and 2001 having larger areas burned:
Dr. Rohan Fisher is a fire expert at Charles Darwin University and has dedicated a significant portion of his professional life to tracking and observing fires in northern Australia. He explains that the magnitude of this year’s fires has been remarkable, largely due to the cyclical weather patterns of El Niño and La Niña. During La Niña years, heavy rainfall leads to more vegetation growth, creating a greater amount of fuel for future fires as the plants dry out.
According to him, fire and water have a close connection in the desert.
La Niña cycles are connected to these large fuel load occurrences. For instance, the largest fire event in 2011 covered approximately 400,000 square kilometers, which was a significant area.
According to Fisher, the recent fires have been abnormally large and severe, despite the recurring weather patterns.
“He says that in cases where we observe efficient fuel management in desert environments, we do not witness fires of this magnitude.”
The magnitude of these fires is a clear consequence of Indigenous land managers being removed from their land.
Looking back 60 or 70 years ago, in many areas of the desert where there were still inhabitants, there were intricate patterns of fuel loads. In the past, going back 50,000 to 60,000 years, there would have been similar cycles of fuel loads, but fires of this magnitude would not have occurred.
According to Fisher, before the current fires, Indigenous rangers worked together to conduct controlled burns over 23,000 square kilometers. Satellite data of hotspots reveals that this management strategy has been successful in the areas where it was implemented.
Over a span of two, three, or four years, we can observe that the fires have been contained in areas where fuel load reduction has taken place.
In my opinion, this highlights the need for increased investment in managing large-scale fires and desert areas across Australia, which are at the core of this country.
“It is important to continue the effort of revitalizing our country in order to achieve a healthier nation. The progress that has been made thus far is remarkable, but it highlights the necessity for further and more coordinated support, as their work has proven to be highly effective.”
The Albanese administration acknowledges the significance of Indigenous rangers and has pledged $1.3 billion to increase their count from 1,900 to 3,800 by the end of the decade. It also plans to create 10 additional Indigenous protected areas that will be overseen by First Nations communities.
The ongoing wildfires have also been exacerbated by the proliferation of invasive buffel grass in dry regions.
Originally intended for grazing and erosion control, buffel grass has rapidly spread throughout central and northern Australia in the last three decades, posing a significant threat to biodiversity in these areas. Although it is highly valued by pastoralists, it has also altered the fire dynamics in arid regions.
According to researchers, buffel grass is known for its rapid and dense growth, making it a potential contributor to more frequent and intense fires compared to native plants.
During the month of August this year, there were major fires near Alice Springs that were linked to buffel grass. This was also the case in 2019. On Wednesday, a coalition of nearly 40 organizations from central Australia urged the NT government to officially declare buffel grass as a weed due to its destructive impact on landscapes, the economy, health, and culture.
According to Fisher, buffel grass is significantly altering the ecology of those areas.
According to him, buffel grass typically produces a larger quantity of fuel.
“It travels to different areas and permits the spread of fire in regions where it may not typically occur due to the presence of an extensive and continuous fuel supply. Additionally, following a fire, this fuel source rapidly regenerates.”