On May 28, 2020, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired a true-color image of fires burning in northern Australia.
Each red “hot spot” marks an area where the thermal bands on the instrument detected high temperatures. When combined with typical smoke, such hot spots mark actively burning fire. More than a dozen fires are burning in the “top end” of Northern Territory with strong wind blowing the smoke towards the northeast. While it is not possible to know why a fire starts from a satellite image, given the time of year and location, most of these fires are likely prescribed burns, set to reduce fuel and prevent more damaging fires later in the season.
While the annual cycle can most simply broken into a “wet” and “dry” season, the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal natives breaks down the year with six seasons, each tied to specific variations in weather, plant growth, and growth of bush foods. To the native peoples of Northern Territory, the early “dry” season, which in the broad sense runs April to October, opens with Bangkerreng in April followed by Yekke in May.
Bankerreng brings clear skies and the flush of new life, with fruiting plants and the birth of young animals. It is also a season punctuated by violent, windy storms. As Yekke comes in May, the winds are more gentle, the temperatures still cool, and early-morning mists lay over the grasslands. This is the time that the Aboriginal land managers would traditionally practice patch burning to encourage new growth and “clean the country”.
According to information published by Kakkadu National Park, which sits in the northern reached of Northern Territory, “Today we work with Parks Australia to manage Kakadu using a mix of traditional ways and modern science. Kakadu’s plants grow quickly after the monsoonal rains of the tropical summer. As the land dries out, this vegetation can become fuel for dangerous bushfires. Like our ancestors, Kakadu’s rangers use traditional patch burning to clear this fuel and prevent big bushfires later. We light small fires early in the year while it’s still nice and cool. The fires encourage new growth, while the patchwork of burnt and unburnt land makes it more difficult for bushfires to spread. Using small fires also means animals have plenty of time to escape to unburnt habitat.”