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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 16(4)

Bushfires ‘down under’: patterns and implications of contemporary Australian landscape burning

Jeremy Russell-Smith A B J, Cameron P. Yates C, Peter J. Whitehead A C, Richard Smith D, Ron Craig D, Grant E. Allan B E, Richard Thackway F, Ian Frakes F, Shane Cridland G, Mick C. P. Meyer H, A. Malcolm Gill I

A Tropical Savannas Management Cooperative Research Centre, Darwin, NT, Australia.
B Bushfires NT, Darwin, NT, Australia.
C Deparment Natural Resources, Environment & the Arts, Palmerston, NT, Australia.
D Department Land Information, Perth, WA, Australia.
E Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, Alice Springs, NT, Australia.
F Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
G Deparment Environment & Heritage, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
H CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Vic, Australia.
I CSIRO Plant Industry, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
J Corresponding author. Email: jeremy.russell-smith@nt.gov.au
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Australia is among the most fire-prone of continents. While national fire management policy is focused on irregular and comparatively smaller fires in densely settled southern Australia, this comprehensive assessment of continental-scale fire patterning (1997–2005) derived from ~1 km2 Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) imagery shows that fire activity occurs predominantly in the savanna landscapes of monsoonal northern Australia. Statistical models that relate the distribution of large fires to a variety of biophysical variables show that, at the continental scale, rainfall seasonality substantially explains fire patterning. Modelling results, together with data concerning seasonal lightning incidence, implicate the importance of anthropogenic ignition sources, especially in the northern wet–dry tropics and arid Australia, for a substantial component of recurrent fire extent. Contemporary patterns differ markedly from those under Aboriginal occupancy, are causing significant impacts on biodiversity, and, under current patterns of human population distribution, land use, national policy and climate change scenarios, are likely to prevail, if not intensify, for decades to come. Implications of greenhouse gas emissions from savanna burning, especially seasonal emissions of CO2, are poorly understood and contribute to important underestimation of the significance of savanna emissions both in Australian and probably in international greenhouse gas inventories. A significant challenge for Australia is to address annual fire extent in fire-prone Australian savannas.

Keywords: AVHRR, biomass burning, fire mapping, greenhouse gas emissions, remote sensing, satellite imagery, savanna burning.

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