A FIRE that destroyed two sacred ghost gums featured in an Albert Namatjira landscape was arson according to the Northern Territory bushfire authority, the Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment.
A spokeswoman said a report would be referred to police. ''But our initial investigations indicate the fire was deliberately lit.''
The gums were also listed as a sacred site of the western Arrernte people by the Aboriginal Areas Protection authority. Alison Anderson, the member for Namatjira and Minister for Indigenous Advancement in the NT government, described the arson attack as a ''sad time'' for Aboriginal people because the gums held special significance for Arrernte people.
Fairfax Media understands this is not the first incident involving the deliberate killing and vandalising of significant and sacred trees in and around Alice Springs in recent years. In other incidents river gums in the Todd River have been burnt and ancient Coolabah trees drilled and poisoned.
It was revealed on Friday that the ghost gums, a centrepiece of the celebrated Namatjira water colour Twin Ghosts, were discovered burning by a passerby at 4.30am on Saturday. Three fire units battled for two hours, but were unable to save the trees, which were badly charred at the base.
It is understood the tall grass around the gums had been recently cleared by local rangers in preparation for the heritage listing that was to be formally authorised in a matter of weeks.
''There is no doubt somebody set out to destroy the trees. It was announced in December they had been approved for heritage listing and that had apparently made them a target,'' a source close to the investigation said.
Located 16 kilometres west of Alice Springs on historic Larapinta Drive, the ghost gums, regarded by Arrernte people as living spirits, had been hit by dieback and were part of a restoration program.
Malcolm Connolly, a senior heritage officer, said he had been involved with traditional owners and the Central Land Council in plans to save the trees and to protect them from unnecessary tourist intrusion.
They were regarded as a deeply significant landmark, synonymous with Namatjira's depiction of the desert country around Hermannsburg and ghost gums as living spirits.
Susan McCulloch, the author of the Encyclopedia of Australian Art, said the destruction of the ''majestic ghost gums'' that appeared in so many of Namatjira's most well-known and much-loved works was an appallingly tragic act of cultural vandalism.
Traditional owners of the region were unavailable for comment because of ''sorry business'' at the nearby community of Hermannsburg, grieving the deaths of three young people killed in a car crash.
Albert Namatjira died in 1959 at the age of 57.