Stanford University
A Decade of Fire in Western Australia
A Decade of Fire in Western Australia
This application is based on a combination of ethnographic and ecological research undertaken by Stanford faculty and students in collaboration with Martu, Aboriginal owners of an expansive Native Title located in the Great and Little Sandy Desert bioregions of Western Australia. Ethnographic field work included interviews with Martu and quantitative observations of Martu hunting and burning. Ecological research included on-the-ground monitoring of areas at different stages of regrowth following a fire and spatial (GIS) analysis of satellite (Landsat) imagery to classify burns over a ten-year period from 2000-2010.

In the arid spinifex grasslands of Western Australia, fires are an integral part of the ecology. Following the first rains after a fire, small shoots of green vegetation begin to grow out of the newly fertilized sand. About a year later, the area becomes dominated by fruiting and herbaceous plants, many of which are important sources of food for Aboriginal people. By about five years following the fire, spinifex grass begins to dominate once again. A large hummock grass, spinifex, reaches out from its center and begins to crowd out all of the other plants. Eventually spinifex comes to dominate the entire sand plain and the process can begin again with another fire.

Martu fires, lit most frequently in the context of sand monitor lizard hunting, are much smaller than lightning ignition fires. Overtime, these differences build into different contrasting landscapes. Within the Martu region, notice the fine-grained mosaic of different-aged vegetation patches build over time. In contrast, the lightning region is dominated by a small number of extremely huge fires. The end result is a much more heterogeneous and diverse landscape within the area dominated by Aboriginal fires. This diversity also benefits other desert species.

This was originally developed as a touchscreen application for the art exhibit Waru! Holding fire in Australia’s Western Desert, at the Thomas Welton Stanford Gallery in Summer 2011.

Contributing Authors: Erik Steiner, Brian F. Codding, Pete Kauhanen, Kathy Harris, Jake Coolidge, Claudia Engel, Nyalangka Taylor, Curtis Taylor, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Douglas W. Bird
Spatial History