Contemporary landscape burning patterns in the far North Kimberley region of north-west Australia: human influences and environmental determinants

T Vigilante, David Bowman, Rohan Fisher, Jeremy Russell-Smith, C YATES

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Aim: This study of contemporary landscape burning patterns in the North Kimberley aims to determine the relative influences of environmental factors and compare the management regimes occurring on Aboriginal lands, pastoral leases, national park and crown land. Location: The study area is defined at the largest scale by Landsat Scene 108-70 that covers a total land area of 23,134 km 2 in the North Kimberley Bioregion of north-west Australia, including the settlement of Kalumburu, coastline between Vansittart Bay in the west and the mouth of the Berkeley River in the east, and stretching approximately 200 km inland. Methods: Two approaches are applied. First, a 10-year fire history (1990-1999) derived from previous study of satellite (Landsat-MSS) remote sensing imagery is analysed for broad regional patterns. And secondly, a 2-year ground-based survey of burning along major access roads leading to an Aboriginal community is used to show fine-scale burning patterns. ANOVA and multiple regression analyses are used to determine the influence of year, season, geology, tenure, distance from road and distance from settlement on fire patterns. Results: Satellite data indicated that an average of 30.8% (�4.4% SEM) of the study area was burnt each year with considerable variability between years. Approximately 56% of the study area was burnt on three or more occasions over the 10-year period. A slightly higher proportion of burning occurred on average in the late dry season (17.2 � 3.6%), compared with the early dry season (13.6 � 3.3%). The highest fire frequency occurred on basalt substrates, on pastoral tenures, and at distances 5-25 km from roads. Three-way ANOVA demonstrated that geological substrate and land use were the most significant factors influencing fire history, however a range of smaller interactions were also significant. Analysis of road transects, originating from an Aboriginal settlement, showed that the timing of fire and geology type were the most significant factors affecting the pattern of area burnt. Of the total transect area, 28.3 � 2.9% was burnt annually with peaks in burning occurring into the dry season months of June, August and September. Basalt uplands (81.2%) and lowlands (30.1%) had greater areas burnt than sandstone (12.3%) and sands (17.7%). Main conclusions: Anthropogenic firing is constrained by two major environmental determinants; climate and substrate. Seasonal peaks in burning activity in both the early and late dry season relate to periods of optimal fire-weather conditions. Substrate factors (geology, soils and physiognomy) influence vegetation-fuel characteristics and the movement of fire in the landscape. Basalt hills overwhelmingly supported the most frequent wildfire regime in the study region because of their undulating topography and relatively fertile soils that support perennial grasslands. Within these spatial and temporal constraints people significantly influenced the frequency and extent of fire in the North Kimberley thus tenure type and associated land uses had a significant influence on fire patterning. Burning activity is high on pastoral lands and along roads and tracks on some tenure types. While the state government uses aerial control burning and legislation to try to restrict burning to the early dry season across all geology types, in practice burning is being conducted across the full duration of the dry season with early dry season burning focused on sandstone and sand substrates and late dry season burning focused on basalt substrates. There is greater seasonal and spatial variation in burning patterns on landscapes managed by Aboriginal people.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1317-1333
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Biogeography
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - 2004


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