Why pre-harvest cane fires still light up the sky

Why pre-harvest cane fires still light up the sky

In the past, smoke on the horizon during sugarcane season was a familiar sight. It’s become rarer in many regions in recent decades, but fire remains an important tool for managing our crop.

Historically all sugarcane was burned before harvest to make the job of cutting by hand easier and protect the cutters from disease spread by rats.

As mechanical harvesters were developed, and the soil health benefits of leaving some leaf trash on the ground was promoted, more was cut ‘green’. Now around 70% of Queensland’s crop is harvested without burning.

But wherever you are through our vast sugarcane regions, there is still the possibility that the dusk or dawn sky will be lit up with a cane burn – a big, bright whoosh and then it’s done.

As growers we are often asked why cane is burned so with the 2022 season underway, here are the reasons.

In my home region of the Burdekin, the sheer size of our irrigated crop makes it hard for even the modern harvesting machines to get through efficiently and cutting green would leave so much leafy ‘trash’ behind that we would risk it rotting and killing the cane stool.

We also furrow irrigate, running the water along the ground through the rows, which the trash would block.

Away from the Burdekin, cyclones, flooding and storms often lay a cane crop flat or tangle it. Burning makes it easier for machinery to get through messy cane and ensures any debris or hazards are visible.

That’s important for safety – imagine driving in a two metre tall cane crop and running into iron sheets or fridges and furniture after a flood!

Sometimes a district is left with what’s known as standover cane that couldn’t be harvested because of weather or mill issues towards the end of a season. This cane is cut in the next season, but the size and leafiness of the two-year old plants means harvesting is inefficient unless some of the excess material is removed through burning.

For whatever reason it happens, cane growers take care to follow the rules and requirements for safe and legal burns set down in a Notification for Burning of Sugar Cane or, if required, a permit issued by a local Fire Warden.

Information on the Notification, and the circumstances in which a permit is needed, can be found on the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service website.

We aim to minimise inconvenience to neighbours and nearby communities by choosing times when the wind is low, generally at dusk and dawn, having experienced people and fire control equipment at the ready and ensuring a quick, clean burn.

We appreciate your understanding. Please enjoy the spectacle from a distance if you see a cane fire knowing that fire is an important tool for our industry which supports the prosperity of many regional communities.