Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

October 5th 2006
Why we had the fire

I think we got it out this time With large plumes of smoke billowing from the back of Horseshoe Bay on Tuesday afternoon Islanders were becoming concerned as to whether the controlled burn organised by Queensland Parks was, in fact, under control. However, Magnetic Island Ranger in Charge Patrick Centurino was happy to report that the fire was secure. Just why the fire was considered necessary is a perennial question on the Island and some of the reasons, as we learned from Patrick Centurino, were not quite what many may have expected.

The 184 hectare area where the burn was conducted has not, according to Patrick Centurino, been burned for 14 years. The land was mostly within the National Park and the fire was set along a line from the water reservoir near the Forts back towards and along the Arcadia to Nelly walking track.

Flames near Curlew Flat

Apart from a couple of Burtons legless lizards and a range of insects Patrick Centurino claims that his team had not encountered any other wildlife fatalities from the burn which will be the last for this year.

"We checked for koalas but saw none prior to the fire. There were lots of echidna diggings both before and after the fire and we saw three death adders leaving the area. The lizards were pretty good at getting away too," he said.

"I estimate we walked 160kms back and forward along the burn looking for animals and checking for spot-overs (further break-out fires caused by flying sparks). We saw lots of flying insects - some we'd never seen before as well as spiders which went half and half heading the right way.

The fire advances slowly through the acacia

The intention behind the controlled burn most familiar to readers is to create a mosaic pattern where patches of unburnt ground are regularly spaced amongst the burned areas. This allows a refuge for animals and a supply of food while the burned ground regenerates. It appears that this was generally achieved although Patrick accepts that there will never be a perfect burn and some areas will burn higher and hotter than others.

"We started in August and during the period of the burns the season changed from a time when the fire would stop at night to a time when it would continue. Humidity ranged from 50% to 89% in the period since Sunday and we hoped that through that variation we would get a variation of the burn which is what we want."

The strategy was to light the fires along to upper ridges and using back burns create a "black line" fire break to contain upward advances and cause the flames to travel slowly downhill.

"The fastest fire moved at 360 metres per hour and the slowest at 20," said Patrick.

Burnt grass trees

A grass-tree regenerates after burning

Readers may be aware that many Australian plant species require fire to assist in triggering germination of their seeds. But for the management of the park, which abuts residential housing, and to lessen the destruction of a future wildfire, the need to lessen the fuel build-up by controlled burns is also considered necessary.

A fully grown poplar gum amidst the
more recent incursion of dense acacia.

According to Patrick Centurino the area focussed on had experienced a substantial change in vegetation type with short-lived acacias (or wattle) predominating beneath the larger eucalyptus species. "We were very sensitive to the tall-standing trees and you notice more fully adult trees alive and standing which would indicate perhaps 100 years of vegetation and alongside them were dead trees of a similar size - perhaps showing us another 100 years back and that the pre-European landscape was a grassy open woodland."

As these parts were now chocked by, often dead and fuel creating, acacias the intention was to burn the acacias with a fire that was fast enough to kill living scrub and not hot enough to germinate their fire-triggered seeds. "We also tried to burn out as much fallen acacia to avoid a ladder effect (where flames leap up fallen branches to burn the crowns and kill larger trees) in future fires.

Patrick Centurino welcomes discussion over the strategies and approach and admits that some parts will look rather scrappy after the fire. "But a second burn in six years time will bring it much closer to what we want"

In a later message Patrick told that, "When we were burning, right in the middle of the Nelly to Arcadia track, a cane toad came out of the fire. I have to admit I was pretty sure cane toads weren't in the hills before that"

Story: George Hirst
Cartoon (from the 1990s) by Gavin Ryan
Photos courtesy QPWS

To make a comment see below

Why we had the fire
October 6th 2006
Thanks to MagneticTimes for a thorough look at a sensitive subject. And thanks to Patrick Centurino and the other Parks team members (and many supporting personnel) who not only went to great lengths to plan and manage a difficult process but did everything possible to provide transparency and inclusion to share around the burden. Very different from the scary and out of control scenes I remember from the 1980s.

What do you think? Send us your comments.

Readers comments
suemac In reply to Fair raises $15,000 for school
Well done everyone! Once again our fabulous community had a great day out and raised funds for a deserving cause - pat on back to all.
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