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The Devastating Bushfire Left Off Summer's Extensive Roll Call

Despite an already extensive list of bushfires this season in Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, one event in the heart of the country largely went unnoticed.

Bushfires burnt out of control in the Tjoritja National Park in the West MacDonnell Ranges for nearly three weeks in January.

They swept across an area of more than 100km, almost reaching the edge of Alice Springs.

The blaze took at least 80 firefighters and volunteers to contain, working in often above 40-degree heat, against strong winds, in difficult terrain.

Image: Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife

Though all threatened buildings were saved, the firestorm impacted almost a quarter of the national park, desert ecologist Dr Fiona Walsh told 10 daily.

"The park has so many visitors. It's a prime tourist destination for Central Australia and with good reason -- it's stunning," Walsh said.

"The fire has burnt quite a bit of the most important habitats within it. ”

Known for its stunning walks, many sections of the Tjoritja National Park were closed following the fire. Image: fionawalshecology.com

Significant areas of plant and animal biodiversity were destroyed and popular sites in one of the country's prized natural wonders were left smouldering.

But for experts including Walsh -- who has lived and worked in the area for 25 years -- the fires are the perfect storm of contributing environmental factors which need addressing, including fire management and our changing climate.

A Matter Of Fuel

Significant fires in Central Australia typically only occur after exceptionally high rainfall. This prompts the growth of native plants that when a fire strikes, serve as fuel.

Due to typical rainfall patterns, widespread fire therefore isn’t a common occurrence in the country's centre -- Alice Springs last saw rain on January 26.

Since Tjoritja National Park was established in the 1990s, it saw only two other large-scale fire events before this year: one in 2001 and another in 2011, both preceded by periods of heavy rainfall.

An ancient tree in the national park before and after the fires. Image: fionawalshecology.com

So what's different now?

January's fire wasn't preceded by a period of heavy rainfall, senior lecturer in environmental science and ecology Christine Schlesinger told 10 daily, but was more than adequately fueled by an invasive species called buffel grass.

Introduced to The Red Centre in the 1960s to help control erosion during drought, buffel grass grows faster than many native plants and on much less rain.

"It was introduced widely and thought that it was a really good thing," Schlesinger said.

"But of course it spread well beyond those areas, including national parks where it isn't wanted."

In areas where buffel grass has invaded, wildfire can commonly occur, leaving next to no patches unburnt.

Schlesinger's research, published in 2013, revealed areas populated with native species are not wiped out in such an extreme way.

The Larapinta Trail, one of the most famous walks in the park, was largely damaged by the fire. Image: fionawalshecology.com

Along with professor of Indigenous social research Barry Judd, Schlesinger recently called for a rethink of Tjorita National Park's fire management while writing for The Conversation.

"We're not talking about a small scale impact,” she said. 

“This is actually potentially going to affect large areas and is already affecting large areas of arid Australia. It's really changed the fuel load within the systems that it's invaded, so the ability for the fire to spread and the intensity of the fire when it does spread is changing because of buffel grass."

A Concerning Forecast

The invasive grass species plays the most obvious role in Central Australia's changing fire conditions, Schlesinger said, but a changing climate is also contributing. 

The fire season in Australia is getting longer and more extreme as a result of rising temperatures on the land and in the sea, the annual State of the Climate report released in December explained.

The effects of this were recently seen in Tasmania, where lightning that struck dry ground began a series of out-of-control bushfires that burned from Christmas well into Feburary.

A road sign seen melted from the blaze's heat. Image: fionawalshecology.com

The Climate Council predicts heatwaves will continue to become longer and more frequent in Central Australia, providing buffel grass better conditions in which to dry out.

Walsh said the "radical change" she has seen in the national park's natural environment was not one she ever expected to see in her lifetime.

"I really wish that people who are in cities, policymakers, politicians within the climate change space, would be looking and listening carefully to what's happening in inland Australia and cities like Alice Springs -- where people are living with the effects of global warming as a day to day reality.

"It's not something of the future, this is current tense, and past tense. These changes have been felt increasingly over the past years."

Contact the author: vquested@networkten.com.au.