What is adaptive management?

A key outcome of the capacity building and consultatory processes outlined above is the refinement and establishment of clear strategic objectives for management, and also performance indicators as benchmarks against which the effectiveness of management can be assessed.

An approach to management that is now widely accepted is adaptive management. Adaptive management provides a useful framework for integrating science and management and enables managers to work with uncertainty, incomplete knowledge and with unreplicated studies, as is so often the reality with natural resource management.

Adaptive management has been associated with Western science and management, and in terms of fire management, specifically to conservation and pastoral systems. There has been increasing recognition that fire management needs to incorporate adaptive management rather than focus on prevailing command-and-control paradigms.

Command-and-control approaches focus on achieving a given management prescription. This is the principle objective rather than a desired environmental state. So, for example, management might set a burning target to ensure the country is burnt every two years in the early dry season, and no emphasis is placed on whether this is achieving a desirable outcome such as ensuring the conservation of a wide range of species.

Adaptive management in contrast sets clear management objectives at the outset that relate directly to desired outcomes on the ground. This is an approach to natural resource management that is designed to incorporate ‘learning by doing’ where decisions are made as part of an on-going process of review and evaluation against predetermined indicators. Management prescriptions are then applied and outcomes monitored. These prescriptions are then refined with the feedback and new knowledge from monitoring incorporated into the management approach.

Activity: Adaptive fire management

How does adaptive management work?

With an adaptive management framework the focus shifts from management prescriptions to the importance of clear goals or objectives and of monitoring the outcomes of management. The following paper sets out some of the issues relating to these two management approaches.


Andersen, A.N. (2003) Burning Issues in Savanna Ecology & Management. In: Fire in Tropical Savannas (A.N. Andersen, G.D. Cook, R.J. Williams, eds.), pp. 6-7. Springer-Verlag, New York.

How and why do fire management approaches change?

Fire management has been driven by cultural and political imperatives, and ill-informed decision making. Consequently, fire management policy and practices can undergo frequent ‘about faces’. This is demonstrated in the following summary history of the fire management approaches in Kruger National Park, South Africa.


Kruger National Park case study (pdf document)

Assessing management outcomes and monitoring

For effective management it is important to be able to evaluate the outcome of any applied fire regime. Fire history can be assessed by:

  • examining fire extent (burn scar size and shape)
  • fire severity
  • calculating fire frequency by superimposing fire histories using a GIS program

These fire characteristics can be used to inform management but only when combined with effective monitoring which directly relates to the overall strategic objective. For example, fire regimes may be used as a surrogate for biodiversity measurement (the idea being, the more variable the fire regime, the more biodiversity will be conserved). However, the relationship between fires and this desired state of biodiversity still requires much research. Focusing just on monitoring fire regimes could potentially result in command-and-control management with attention focused on achieving the prescription rather than the achievement of desired ecological outcomes.

Satellite technology and fire management

Knowing about the effects of different fire management approaches (e.g. frequent as opposed to infrequent fires) can assist managers make changes to burning operations when and where necessary. Remotely sensed data and images have become a valuable tool for mapping and managing fire, and can assist managers in monitoring and evaluating the success of achieving strategic objectives. The number of images available is increasing rapidly.

Activity: Eye in the sky

How can satellites help?

In order to make the best use of available resources, it is important to understand a little about how satellite systems work, and to gain an appreciation of some of the issues associated with using remotely sensed images.

In Savanna Burning, background information is provided about using satellite data for documenting and describing fires.


Dyer, R., Jacklyn, P., Partridge, I., Russell-Smith, J. & Williams, R. (2001) Savanna Burning: understanding and using fire in northern Australia, pp. 107-110. Tropical Savannas CRC, Darwin.

Active fires: real time data

With satellite technology land managers can also check on the incidence of fires on their (and neighbouring) country. This is important because it means managers can be informed of fires in ‘real time’, and can sometimes be in a position to take action where necessary. Up-to-date records of fires enable action to be taken to put in fire breaks and change any planned burning schedule if necessary. Land managers are thus able to alter the management burns according with the real-time situation.

Activity: Tracking fire

What information does NAFI provide managers?

The North Australian Fire Information (NAFI) website provides up-to-date information on fire hotspots (locations where fires are thought to be burning), and fire scars (patches in the landscape which have been burnt).

Have a look at the following reading for more information on fire hot spots, and then have a look at the North Australian Fire Information website.


Dyer, R., Jacklyn, P., Partridge, I., Russell-Smith, J. & Williams, R. (2001) Savanna Burning: understanding and using fire in northern Australia, pp. 110-112. Tropical Savannas CRC, Darwin.

Using NAFI website and the ‘layers’ function (button on menu bar), see if you can locate any fires burning in your area? (This may depend on the time of year.)

The fire scars are colour coded for the month they burnt. Have a look at the current fire year, and the previous fire year. What time of year were most of the burns in your area?

Now, compare the Darwin area and eastern Arnhemland – how do these areas differ in the timing of fires in the last fire year? Why do you think this might be?


North Australia Fire Information (NAFI) website. Tropical Savannas CRC, Natural Heritage Trust and WA Department of Land Information. Accessed July 2005.

Fire history – frequency

Information on the fire history of an area can assist managers to plan future burns, and combined with monitoring of biodiversity can be a useful tool to assess how effectively biodiversity objectives are being reached. Not only can remotely sensed images be used to map fire extent, but as composites they can be used to document fire frequency and the interval between successive fires.

Activity: Fire history mapping

How is fire history information obtained?

The following reading describes how fire history maps are compiled, where they can be obtained, as well as how they can be used to create fire frequency and fire interval maps.

Have a look also at the NAFI website and see how fire frequency varies across the Northern Territory. You will need to use the ‘layers’ function, and click on ‘Year burnt’ making sure the layer is visible.


Dyer, R., Jacklyn, P., Partridge, I., Russell-Smith, J. & Williams, R. (2001) Savanna Burning: understanding and using fire in northern Australia, pp. 112-115. Tropical Savannas CRC, Darwin.


North Australia Fire Information (NAFI) website. Tropical Savannas CRC, Natural Heritage Trust and WA Department of Land Information. Accessed July 2005.

Activity: Fire management on pastoral properties in the VRD

How does fire management vary?

Objectives for burning on pastoral properties can be quite varied from control of exotic weeds and other woody species to the creation of fire breaks. Objectives may also vary with rainfall and soil type. The outcome of differences in fire management approaches is clearly demonstrated by exploring real-life case studies.


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