Fighting fire with fire

Location: Mount Isa, QLD

Enterprise: Breeding for domestic and live export markets

Producer: James and Marjorie Lord

Soil type: Sandy loams

Pasture type: Predominantly buffel grass and blue grass on spinifex country

“This is spinifex country,” James said. “It burns naturally about every seven years.” 

The Lords have had to implement their own burning plan or risk losing valuable pasture to wildfires, but they haven’t always been so keen to embrace fire management. 

When James and Marjorie bought May Downs in 1986 the land was in a bare and fragile state, and James was concerned about water movement and run-off. James believed the over-use of fire as a management tool had contributed to the poor land condition, and he planned to avoid it as much as possible. 

The land condition needed to improve if the property was to be economically and environmentally sustainable. 

“I saw fire as exposing the soil to erosion and reducing the property’s carrying capacity, so I tried to exclude it,” he said. 

In 1997, James implemented a property development plan using rotational grazing and spelling to graze the country more evenly. 

These improved grazing practices led to much healthier conditions, including the establishment of buffel and blue grass. 

However, as pasture improved and fuel loads increased, so did the risk of fire. In October 2001, 80% of May Downs’ pasture was lost to wildfire.

James decided to include fire management in his whole-of-property planning. He now works with Firescape Science to burn different patches of country over the wet season to reduce fuel loads. 

“We do some burning from the ground and some from the air by dropping incendiaries from helicopters,” James said. 

“We focus on internal patchy burns so any unwanted fires do not spread across the whole property.” 

This patchy, or mosaic, burning early in the year has reduced the risk of extensive pasture loss. 

“It’s all about understanding the risks and benefits,” James said. 

“We are getting better at managing wildfire risks in the Mount Isa area, but there’s room for improvement.”

Lessons learned

  • Fire management is essential in spinifex country.
  • Cool, patchy wet season burns reduce the risk of destructive, dry season wildfires.
  • Careful post-fire management is essential to avoid over-grazing.
  • Fire management should be incorporated into general property planning.
Mount Isa, QLD
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