Smoke blanketed Alice Springs and the Stuart Highway was closed to traffic for several hours on Sunday after what was reported to be a planned fuel reduction burn in Tjoritja West MacDonnell national park got out of control.

Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services (PFES) said on Sunday morning the fire was not contained on one or more fronts. The fire incident map for the area showed three separate blazes with two under control around Simpsons North and Larapinta.

A 15km stretch of the highway was closed in both directions, from just north of Alice Springs to the Tanami Road at Burt Plain.

Local firefighters began hazard reduction burning on Friday, the NT News reported. Changing weather conditions caused the fire to escalate out of control.

PFES recommended people with asthma or breathing difficulties should stay inside.

“Crews are still employing defensive tactics in order to control the fire. Heavy smoke is affecting the Alice Springs township and surrounding areas and those suffering from asthma or breathing ailments are advised to take precautions,” it said.

A separate front towards the suburb of Larapinta appeared to have eased by Sunday afternoon.

Dr Rohan Fisher, a fire researcher at Charles Darwin University who was tracking the fire’s progress on the North Australian and Rangelands Fire Information (NAFI) service, said just over 25,000 hectares of grassland had burnt both inside and outside the national park’s boundaries by Sunday afternoon.

Sally Cutter, a senior meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said the red centre was experiencing higher than average temperatures, but there was no expectation of high winds that would make bushfire conditions worse.

“It is much warmer than average in central Australia at the moment, so that’s going to be increasing the fire danger. But we’re still only seeing moderate [conditions],” she said.

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Ash falling from the sky in Alice Springs and a very orange glow in the sky, thanks to fire burning in Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges - a parks planned burn that got out of control this week. Crews still working to contain it. Larapinta Trail sections 1 & 2 closed.

— Eliza Goetze (@elizagoetze) August 12, 2023

Residents of Alice Springs reported ash falling from the sky, with images of orange haze covering the town’s skyline.

Two sections of the Larapinta Trail were closed to hikers by NT Parks and Wildlife on Saturday, with the Woodland Trail, Simpsons Gap bike path and Hell Line mountain bike trail through the Tjoritja MacDonnell national park also closed.

In March, 100,000 hectares of the national park burned in grassfires. The federal government has previously declared the park a priority place under the national threatened species strategy.

Environmental advocates linked the March fires to rampant growth of buffel grass, an invasive species that has caused fuel loads to increase as fires become hotter and more frequent.

The Stuart Highway, the only northern road for travellers leaving Alice Springs, has now reopened to traffic in both directions.

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