Australian Fire Regimes: Contemporary Patterns (April 1998 - March 2000) and Changes Since European Settlement

Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Biodiversity), Series 2
J Russell-Smith, R Craig, AM Gill, R Smith & J Williams
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2002
ISBN 0 642 54801 3

The Distribution, Extent and Seasonality of Large Fires in Australia, April 1998-March 2000, as Mapped from NOAA-AVHRR Imagery

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Fire regimes in Australia

The Australian environment has been transformed by fire through natural and anthropogenic causes. The anthropogenic fires have had by far the greatest impact on the landscape. Firstly indigenous Australians used fire to aid in hunting practices and to encourage the growth of edible plants. Secondly, the arrival of European settlers caused a dramatic increase in the number of fires, which has had a rapid detrimental effect on the environment (Bond and van Wilgen, 1996). This rapid change in fire regime has lead to the extinction of many species of flora and fauna due to their inability to adapt to such environmental change and landscapes suffer severe water and wind erosion after a fire event (Recher, Lunney and Dunn, 1986). Fire regimes will continue to change in Australia, as humans will persist in using fire as a management tool to maintain landscapes.

Future study on fire regimes will hopefully lead to more sustainable use of fire as a management tool. Ecologists, Bond and van Wilgen (1996), suggest areas of study could include; determination of maximum or minimum time between fire events to successfully manage species; determine best time for control burning; best weather conditions to control fire intensity; and determine size and location of a fire which best influences post fire recovery, animal range quality and landscape patchiness.

Fire regime and fire impact studies in Australia have been mostly limited to regional areas in the past, due to the diversity of landcover types and the vast area of the continent.

Satellite remote sensing and fire

Satellite remote sensing has opened the way for mapping and monitoring of fire activity on a continental scale. Robinson (1991) suggests that fire forms four signals that can be observed from space; 1] direct radiation from active fires (heat and light); 2] smoke; 3] post fire char and 4] altered vegetation structure. Remote sensing can be employed in three stages of fire management; before, during and after a fire. Pre fire remote sensing is important in the prevention of fire and the design of controlled burns (Gonzales-Alonso et al., 1997; Craig et al., 1995; Paltridge and Barber,1988). During the fire, remote sensing can be used to detect and monitor the movement of fire across the landscape (Flasse, 1998; Martin et al., 1998; Smith et al., 1996). Post fire remote sensing is used to map the fire scar (footprint) and assess the area burnt (Fuller and Fulk, 1998; Flasse, 1998; Ehrlich, Lambin and Malingreau, 1997; Smith et al., 1996).


Ron Craig, Belinda Heath, Natalie Raisbeck-Brown, Mike Steber, Jackie Marsden and Richard Smith
Satellite Remote Sensing Services
Department of Land Administration, Western Australia


Craig, R., Heath, B., Raisbeck-Brown, N., Steber, M., Marsden J. and Smith, R. (2002) The distribution, extent and seasonality of large fires in Australia, April 1998-March 2000, as mapped from NOAA-AVHRR imagery. In Australian fire regimes: contemporary patterns (April 1998 - March 2000) and changes since European settlement, Russell-Smith, J., Craig, R., Gill, A.M., Smith, R. and Williams, J. 2002. Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Biodiversity), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.