Fires lit by ‘scumbags’ have burnt millions of hectares and NT land managers are livid

Fires lit by ‘scumbags’ have burnt millions of hectares and NT land managers are livid

More than 13 million hectares of Northern Territory land has gone up in flames in the past two months. 

Key points:

  • Many recent fires are believed to have been deliberately lit
  • Land managers are “livid” about repeated arson
  • About 80 per cent of the NT is expected to burn before March 2024

The extent of country burnt has not been seen in more than a decade, with close to 80 per cent of the NT expected to burn by March 2024.

While fire is a common element of the NT’s landscape, the sheer number of fires burning at the same time has many people asking how they started.

Some fires have been accidentally sparked by graders or other vehicles, but many are believed to have been deliberately lit.

In one case, Bushfires NT, volunteers, interstate firefighters, and cattle producers spent weeks fighting a fire that raged through the Barkly region, covering about 3 million hectares.

A fire in the Barkly region burnt about 3 million hectares over several weeks.(Supplied: Amber Driver)

Then, only a day after the blaze was brought under control in mid-September, another started just to the south of the extinguished front.

“After months of slog, sweat and in some cases, tears, to get the Barkly fires under control, we thought we’d hit the home run yesterday after the success of the defensive back-burning this week,” Bushfires NT wrote on its Facebook page.

“So, imagine our shared disappointment and frustration to have another fire deliberately lit from the roadside of the Sandover Highway in the Barkly.

“We have no words to express our feelings, and those of the landholders who are affected.”

Multiple fires have burnt more than half of the Tanami Desert in the past few weeks.(Supplied:  Modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023/Sentinel Hub)

NT Fire and Rescue Service acting chief fire officer Josh Fisher said his organisation and NT Police were “working diligently to investigate any reported suspicious fire activity”.

“The safety and security of our community is our top priority, and we are committed to identifying and bringing to justice anyone who engages in such dangerous behaviour,” Mr Fisher said.

The new Minister for Agribusiness, Nicole Manison, said she had been urged to ask NT Police to prioritise fire investigations. 

“It is an absolutely disgraceful, despicable act to go and intentionally set a fire alight to create chaos — they are absolute scumbags and need to be dealt with,” Ms Manison said. 

Widespread frustration

That some of these fires have been deliberately lit has angered cattle producers, firefighters, and Indigenous rangers.

NT Cattlemen’s Association president David Connolly said his members were extremely frustrated to be forced to fight such fires.

“I would like to see the police start to help people understand just how serious the issue is,” Mr Connolly said.

“Fires burn grass, among other things, and pastoralists make their living out of feeding that grass to cattle. What are those cattle going to eat now?

“It’s months before these pastoralists can count on any rain — if it rains at all.

“I am livid about it — you’ve only got to see the burn for it to stir up some sort of emotion in you.”

Pleas to stop

As smoke lingered in the air around the remote northern Tanami community of Lajamanu last week, ranger groups from across the region met to talk about the impact of fires, as well as how to control and prevent them.

Walpiri ranger Christine Ellis Michaels said people had been lighting fires on the side of the road, but she urged them not to.

“Stop it,” she said.

“It’s ruining everything, country, sacred sites, [it’s] making people frightened.”

Ms Ellis Michaels said it was sad to see so much of her country in the Tanami desert burning.

Christine Ellis Michaels implored people to stop lighting fires.(Supplied: David Eldridge)

Murnkurrumurnkurru ranger Helma Bernard had the same message, “Stop lighting fires”.

“You’ll have big problems,” she said.

“Kids think it’s fun lighting fire … but things can happen seriously sometimes when you’re not looking at it or when you’re not there to protect it.”

Both rangers encouraged people to light fires responsibly, by participating in controlled patch burns through ranger programs.

Ms Bernard said education was a way to deter the next generation from arson.

“If you want to light a fire, you go to school, graduate, get a job as a ranger and you go do training,” she said.

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