The red centre burns

14 November 2011
The ‘dry season’ of 2011 particularly around the months of September and October saw Central Australia devastated by fire with approximately 200,000 square kilometres of bushland and desert grasses lost to wildfire.
Alice Springs fires Yamba
Click to View Images

The normally dry red centre experienced record breaking rainfall over the southern summer as tropical lows pushed deep into central Australia. The growth of Spinifex and other native grasses more than tripled, providing a carpet that reached to the very tops of the rocky ridges that are normally natural fire breaks.

By Chief Fire Officer
Steve Rothwell

Fire agencies began a public education program for land owners to install and maintain fire breaks and to reduce their fuel loads. Prescribed burning operations were undertaken to protect major infrastructure around Alice Springs and within the southern regions of the NT; a huge task for the 50 local full time and volunteer fire fighters.

Due to fire lighting activity, the beginning of the fire season saw the first of several big fires sweep across the hills toward the suburbs of Alice Springs in August.

Alice Springs had not experienced fires of this magnitude since 2002 and previously 1991. Local fire crews, mostly volunteers from NT Fire and Rescue Service (NTFRS), Bushfires NT (BFNT), Parks and Wildlife (P&W) and local Indigenous Rangers, with support from NT Emergency Services (NTES), NT Police and local council all worked tirelessly together to contain these early fires to approximately 800 square kilometres without the loss of property or injury to personnel.

On 21 September the Emergency Operation Centre was established due to NTFRS and BFNT crews being stretched to capacity, with fatigue becoming a significant risk.

As the numbers and size of fires steadily grew, a call was made to Top End NTFRS and for the first time in our history, we looked across the boarder for assistance from the South Australian Country Fire Service SA (CFS). Six volunteers and three full time employees from the Top End and 21 members and 4 x 3,000 litre water tankers were deployed to Alice.

This arrangement was to continue through four rotations of crews.

Due to the strong winds during the day, fire fighters used graders and front end loaders to conduct back burns throughout the evening and nights.

At the end of September, NTFRS Alice Springs identified and responded to 22 deliberately lit fires within the town in a single night.

The fires were broken into five groups and at one point 74 personnel were committed to extinguishing the blazes.

These fire fighting personnel came from both full time and volunteer streams of BFNT, NTFRS, CFS, FACSIA and Parks and Wildlife. Essential support roles within the Incident Management Team and EOC came primarily from NTES and NT Police.

NT Emergency Services played a crucial role in managing logistics.

Police also assisted greatly, particularly those in remote regions where their knowledge of the region and relationships with the people on both communities and cattle stations proved to be a real asset.

Early October saw the arrival of scattered rain across the Alice Springs and very southern parts of the NT providing some respite and enabling fire crews in these regions to have a well earned break, but not for long. Fires were still burning to the north east of Alice Springs in the Plenty Highway region.

On 4 October a thunderstorm passed through Harts Range, causing numerous fires in the area. Members conducted more back burning efforts utilising graders near Mount Riddock Station, eventually choosing to evacuate Mount Eagle Beak Station.

Personnel fought fires around Mount Riddock and then a large fire front in Harts Range which at one point threatened the local station, Atitjere Community, Teachers and Nurses residences and the Police Station itself.

Members conducted more back burning efforts as the fire spread rapidly in and around Atitjere over the next week. Police organised buses, troop carriers and night patrol vehicles to evacuate approximately 40 people from Number Five Outstation.

At the time of writing this article there had been no structures lost or persons injured. An amazing result from a team of dedicated people who came together from many organisations, all willing to work together toward the same goal.

The fire season in the southern region is not over and is expected to continue for some months.