Life Science Environment Top End rural residents urged to prepare for intense fires due to gamba grass growth

Top End rural residents urged to prepare for intense fires due to gamba grass growth

Scientists say the fuel load in crops of gamba grass is 27 times higher than any native Australian grass. Photo: Gamba Grass Roots
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Top End residents have been warned to prepare for an intense fire season, as above-average rainfall over the past several months has led to the destructive weed gamba grass growing to levels that could fuel dangerous fires.

Property owner Nancy Nathanael said she loved her rural home but had become more fearful of the fires coming through every year.

“When I first bought it, there was no gamba grass,” she said.

“Now it has multiplied and multiplied and with the fires, that has always been a fright, a terror actually, for me and for most of the people who live around here.”

Ms Nathanael said the last fire that came through her property “nearly burnt my place down”.

Nancy Nathanael said the fires she had experienced on her property were terrifying. Photo: ABC News

“The fire brigade had gone because they thought it was over, but the wind changed and it came back,” she said.

“You have no idea how terrifying it is.”

Acting deputy chief fire officer Joshua Fischer said there had been a significant increase in the growth of introduced species of grass, like gamba and mission grass, over the past several months.

“They pose significant problems to our firefighters and the rural community,” he said.

Fire season shorter but more intense

Firefighters faced catastrophic conditions during last year’s season and raised concerns over gamba increasing the fuel loads and fire risks of the Darwin region.

Officer Joshua Fischer said people like Nancy in rural Darwin could get help. Photo: ABC News

Mr Fischer said this year came with new risks.

“The previous two wet seasons, being so dry, meant that we saw fires in areas we normally wouldn’t,” he said.

“With the return of an above-average wet season, some of those areas are now green … but with the increase in grass growth, in particular in rural and urban residential areas, we’ve got an abundance of grass. So there is plenty of fuel there that may burn.”

Mr Fischer said this year’s fire season may be shorter, but the fires could be more intense.

He urged property owners to ensure they had fire breaks and a plan in place in case of an emergency.

Officer Fischer said strategic burns in the rural area would be ongoing. Photo: ABC News

Ms Nathanael was given help to clear her property of gamba grass under the NT government’s Fire Ready program, which has been designed to assist elderly and vulnerable people.

“I could’ve nearly cried. I so much needed help,” she said.

The NT government said it had helped people on 21 properties under the program so far, with another 10 scheduled for work over the next month.

Gamba is dangerous because it burns 10 times hotter, longer, and higher than other grass, and its maximum height of four metres outcompetes native flora and fauna.

It has been spreading closer to Darwin city and out into the Top End’s national parks over the past few years.

Environment and Natural Resources Minister Eva Lawler said the NT government was doing more to help older people control their fire risks in rural properties and to manage gamba.

“Some of them have been here for 30 or 40 years and are some of the original rural residents,” she said.

Environment Minister Eva Lawler said the NT government had sprayed 3,000 hectares of gamba grass with glyphosate. Photo: ABC News

“We never know what the fire season is going to hold. We’ve had a couple of years of some really bad bushfires.”

The government has previously been criticised for not doing enough to eradicate the gamba grass weed.

ABC