Ecological experts have urged the Australian Federal Government to step up its fight against the dreaded gamba grass, and this comes at a time when damaging fires ravaged through the rural area of Darwin, Northern Territory for a whole week.
According to Mitch Hart from Pew Charitable Trusts and head of the Gamba Grass Roots Alliance, gamba grass fires have the potential of burning 10 times hotter than other fires and spreading faster and are more intense.
“Gamba is a big factor in many of the areas where we have seen the worst fires in the past week or so,” he explained.
“Areas where we have seen the extreme and in some instances catastrophic conditions are in places like Batchelor, Adelaide River, in and around Litchfield and down to Tipperary Station and these are all places with well-documented large gamba infestations.”
Dr Natalie Rossiter Rachor, a senior lecturer at the Charles Darwin University has been researching about gamba grass for the past 20 years and notes that every year the weed spreads further and fuels the fire making it more intense.
“Gamba grass is increasing the fuel loads and fire danger in the Darwin region, including the rural area. This is increasing the risk to the environment, infrastructure, and potentially people’s lives,” she said.
The Assistant director of operations at Bushfires Northern Territory Mr Joshua Fischer to Storm Assist that a fuel load refers to “anything available for a fire to burn” and that the fuel load present in gamba grass bushfires was about “double if not triple” that in ordinary grass fires.
Alongside the increase in fuel load, Mr Fischer said gamba grass was naturally tall hence caused fires to burn more intensely and hotter, making such fires more difficult to predict.
‘More than just gamba’
Mr Fischer added that while gamba grass was a major factor in last week’s huge fire danger, it wasn’t the only factor.
He explained that two weak-wet seasons and another hotter climate was also contributing to the fire danger within the Top End area.
“There’s more to it than just gamba, [although] gamba is most certainly one element,” he said.
Mr Fischer warned the residents of Darwin’s rural area not to just spray the gamba grass but also pull it out so that it does not fuel the fire.
He further advised that it was crucial for landholders to ensure a 4m fire break and a 15m gamba free zone on each side.
Dr Rossiter Rachor added that combating gamba grass fires was a very costly exercise.
“Now we have a situation where there needs to be a large number of people attending a fire, so a large number of grass fire units, volunteers, they have aerial response now … there’s a whole range of equipment and staff that you would need to respond to these high-intensity, fast-moving, quite intense fires.”
Dr Rossiter Rachor published a study in 2018 about the impact of gamba grass on fire danger index on grasslands in Northern Territory—a study he carried out in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and Bushfires Northern Territory.
According to one of the research findings, a single gamba grass fire requires up to $102,000 to effectively manage it for a day.
Last week’s fire weather conditions in rural areas of Darwin brought about what’s considered Northern Territory’s “highest fire danger rating” ever recorded since 2010, as reported by the BOM.
The NTG’s Efforts in eradicating gamba
Last July, just before the August 22 election when the majority in Parliament re-elected Territory Labor, the Federal Government had promised to inject $500,000 to set up a “gamba army” to assist in stimulating the economy and safeguard the Top End from the dangerously invasive weed.
The spokesman for the Northern Territory government didn’t say when exactly the gamba army would embark on their roles, but confirmed that it would be before the end of this year.
The Gunner Government also promised to pump in $100,000 to enable landholders to access free equipment and herbicide loans and some $50,000 to initiate a fire mitigation vouchers scheme to assist rural landholders in matters related to land management including firebreaks and gamba grass fuel loads.
While he embraced the pledges, Mr Hart said it was time for the commitments to be translated into real action.
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