International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

The fire history of an arid grassland: the influence of antecedent rainfall and ENSO

Aaron C. Greenville A B , Chris R. Dickman A , Glenda M. Wardle A and Mike Letnic A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Institute of Wildlife Research and School of Biological Sciences, Heydon-Laurence Building, A08, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email:

International Journal of Wildland Fire 18(6) 631-639
Submitted: 4 June 2008  Accepted: 18 September 2008   Published: 22 September 2009


Implementing appropriate fire regimes has become an increasingly important objective for biodiversity conservation programs. Here, we used Landsat imagery from 1972 to 2003 to describe the recent fire history and current wildfire regime of the north-eastern Simpson Desert, Australia, within each of the region’s seven main vegetation classes. We then explored the relationship between antecedent rainfall and El Niño–Southern Oscillation with wildfire area. Wildfires were recorded in 11 years between 1972 and 2003, each differing in size. In 1975, the largest wildfire was recorded, burning 55% (4561 km2) of the study region. Smaller fires in the intervening years burnt areas that had mostly escaped the 1975 fire, until 2002, when 31% (2544 km2) of the study region burnt again. Wildfires burnt disproportionally more spinifex (Triodia basedowii) than any other vegetation class. A total of 49% of the study area has burnt once since 1972 and 20% has burnt twice. Less than 1% has burnt three times and 36% has remained unaffected by wildfire since 1972. The mean minimum fire return interval was 26 years. Two years of cumulative rainfall before a fire event, rainfall during the year of a fire event, and the mean Southern Oscillation Index from June to November in the year before a fire event could together be used to successfully predict wildfire area. We use these findings to describe the current fire regime.

Additional keywords: arid zone, Australia, GIS, Landsat, Simpson Desert, spinifex, wildfire regime.


We thank Bush Heritage Australia, H. Jukes, G. McDonald and G. Woods for allowing access to the properties in the study region; B. Tamayo and C.-L. Beh for valuable assistance in the field; A. Leavesley and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on drafts of the manuscript. The Australian Research Council provided funding for part of this project.


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