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Changing Fire Management in the Pastoral Lands of Cape York Peninsula of northeast Australia, 1623 to 1996

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Accounts of European explorers between 1623 and 1880 indicate that fires were lit by Aboriginal people on Cape York Peninsula in northeast Australia throughout the dry season (May–October). Diaries kept by three generations of pastoralists in the Musgrave area (1913–1952, 1953–1974 and 1976–1992) show that burning activities were largely confined to a two to six week period between May and early August. The timing of burning depended on the amount and date of cessation of wet season rainfall. More rarely, ‘storm-burning’, burning under hot conditions within a few days of the first heavy rains of the wet season, was undertaken. Long-term pastoralists felt a responsibility to use fire wisely and had a detailed knowledge of the role of fire in land management. Their decisions to burn were based on the extent of grass curing, and soil and weather conditions, all of which affected the extent of each burn. They used early dry season fires mainly to maintain forage and control cattle movements. Storm-burns were reputed to control woody weeds, but were used infrequently because of difficulty in controlling their spread and uncertainty as to when the next rains would stimulate new grass growth.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Environmental Protection, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Publication date: 2000-03-01

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