The Kapalga Fire Experiment, one of the world's largest fire experiments, significantly improved our understanding of the effects of fire on plants and animals in tropical savannas.

The challenge

Determining the best fire conditions for ecosystems

Fire is an important part of the northern Australian landscape, like it is in savanna environments throughout the world. Most of the fires are deliberately lit by people, including conservation managers. The most common management practice is to burn extensively in the early dry season (May/June), when the country is still relatively moist, and fires tend to be low in intensity, patchy, and small in extent. This reduces the extent of higher intensity wildfires that inevitably occur later in the dry season.

Lighting up one of 13 water catchment-sized experimental compartments during the dry season, as part of the Kapalga Fire Experiment.

Land managers and scientists all agree that fire needs to be actively managed in the Top End. The question is not 'Should the country be burnt?', but 'How (when and where) should it be burnt?'. Before the Kapalga Fire Experiment, little was known about the longer term effects of fire on plants and animals and ecological processes, such as nutrient cycling and energy flow. In particular, there was the question of whether declining populations of some species of birds and small mammals were due to changes in fire regimes.

Our response

A landscape-scale fire experiment

CSIRO established one of the world's largest fire experiments, the Kapalga Fire Experiment, in Kakadu National Park in the 1990s. The experiment was landscape-scale, with 13 experimental compartments each comprising a 15-20 km2 water catchment. Each compartment was burnt according to one of four treatments, representing the range of fire types in the region, and treatments were applied annually for five years – from 1990 to 1995.

A range of collaborators worked with CSIRO on the Kapalga Fire Experiment, including Charles Darwin University, the University of Wollongong and Parks Australia, the managers of Kakadu. Research focused on fire behaviour, atmospheric chemistry, nutrient cycling, hydrology and stream dynamics, vegetation, arthropods and vertebrates.

The results

Savanna ecosystems are highly resilient to fire

The Kapalga Fire Experiment has improved our understanding of the effect of fire on plants and animals in tropical savannas. Much of the savanna biota showed little or no response to even the most extreme fire regimes, and is therefore highly resilient to fire. Exceptions were riparian vegetation and associated stream biota, and small mammals.

Where fire had a marked effect, the contrast was often between burnt versus unburnt areas, rather than high versus low intensity fires. This indicates that fire frequency is particularly important, more so than previously recognised. This has led to further research by CSIRO into the effects of fire frequency time-since-fire on ecological function and conservation management in northern Australia

Data from the project was used by CSIRO in collaboration with the Tropical Savannas CRC to develop the Flames simulation model to investigate the effects of fire and rainfall on savanna tree dynamics.

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