Sunday, November 28, 2021

Major bushfires in Australian history – the 1974 and 1975 Australian bushfires

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John O’Donnell, October 2021

In contrast to the temperate southern regions of Australia, fire events in Central Australia are driven by above average rainfall in the preceding years, rather than below average rainfall or drought in the current year. Widespread fire events in Central Australia were found to be associated with two or more consecutive years of above-average rainfall. Fuel loads in long-unburnt grassland can get to high levels.

Pre the 1974 fires
Image: Luke R.H & McArthur A.G., Bushfires in Australia, Cwlth of Australia, 1978.

In 1974–75 Australian a series of bushfires (wildfires) burned across Australia over many months. They burned an estimated 117 million hectares, approximately 15% of Australia’s land mass suffered fire damage, and included areas of New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. The fires killed six people, approximately 57,000 farm animals, farmers’ crops, and destroyed nearly 10,200 kilometres of fencing.

As noted by Cheney (1976) in relation to the 1974-75 Fire Season:

“The first large fires burnt in June on the Barkly Tablelands and in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory. Further huge outbreaks occurred during the following months through to February, with the occurrence moving south through the centre of Australia and towards the eastern coast of New South Wales as grasslands progressively cured with the onset of summer.”

The review includes two case studies in relation to the extent and impact of the bushfires. The first case study used for the 1974/ 5 bushfires is from west of Lake Mackay in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia. The second case study used for the 1974/ 5 bushfires is from the southern Tanami Desert in southern Northern Territory.

The review looks at bushfire suppression in an area of central Australia and also an area in Western NSW. The Moolah-Corinya fire in western NSW was “the largest fire ever contained by man in New South Wales without the help of the weather.” It burned 1.166 million hectares and its perimeter was over 1,000 kilometres.

Aboriginal cultural burning/ prescribed burning/ ecological maintenance burning are important programs for reducing fuel loads, providing bushfire buffers, in setting up safe and healthy landscapes and reducing fauna kills in large bushfires.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) undertakes large scale annual prescribed burning across their large estate and is Australia’s largest non-government fire management program.

In 2020, AWC worked with their Wilinggin and Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation Partners to carry out prescribed aerial burning over an area equivalent to the size of Tasmania – about 6.5 million hectares in planned strip burning using aircraft and burning. The 2020 burning program total distance flown across the Kimberley amounted to an estimated 40,000 kilometres, with an estimated total of 220,000 incendiaries dropped. The AWC approach provides a good platform for undertaking prescribed burning, reducing fuel loads, looking after wildlife, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and working closely with Aboriginal groups.

As outlined in Section 10, the review has identified a number of lessons and adaptive management strategies in relation to the 1974/ 5 bushfires and also considered for the future. This section has been broken down in a number of areas, looking at the 1974/ 5 bushfires as well as combined with the lessons and opportunities of today.

Opportunities include: considering fire management strategies on individual farms and regional areas; using thunderstorm and lightning monitoring service; using satellite technology; and a greater focus on alliances and establishing relationships and partnerships in regards to assets.

Opportunities in relation to prescribed burning strategies include: undertaking prescribed burning in the early dry season, implemented in part to limit the spread of the more destructive wildfires that occur in the later part of the year; refining prescribed burning strategies; adopting prescribed burning programs that use either helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or drones to drop aerial incendiaries or ground-based programs; and considering the AWC aerial prescribed burning approach which provides a good platform for undertaking prescribed burning, reducing fuel loads, looking after wildlife and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

About John O’Donnell

John is a retired district forester and environmental manager for hydro-electric construction and road construction projects.   His main interests are mild maintenance burning of forests, trying to change the culture of massive fuel loads in our forests setting up large bushfires, establishing healthy and safe landscapes, fire fighter safety, as well as town and city bushfire safety.

Related story: Major bushfires in Australian history – the 1851 Victorian bushfires



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