Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Management

Small group tours for mature and senior travellers in the Australian outback to learn and appreciate land management techniques for couples and solo travellers reflecting Aboriginal culture in Kakadu, Tasmania, Arnhem land and the Kimberley.

5 Dec 20 · 6 mins read

Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Management

Traditional Aboriginal fire management, often called ‘cultural burning’, is the practice of regularly using fire to burn vegetation and manage the environment. Dating back over 50,000 years, to the time Aboriginal people populated Australia, the practice has been used historically to skilfully manage the intensity of the inevitable force of fire during the dry season. Generally, it involves cool and quick burns – controlled low intensity fires that remove fuel loads and maintain biodiversity. Yet, it is not just one specific technique, but rather a localised understanding of what is needed for the environment at the time, involving an intimate relationship with the land. Although the practice was largely disrupted by European colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal land, in recent years it has been increasingly recognised for its cultural value and as a crucial approach to stemming destructive bushfires.

Traditional Aboriginal Burning Regime

In Aboriginal culture, ownership provides rights to the resources of the land, as well as responsibilities for managing the land and caring for country. For tens of thousands of year, in a process tightly connected to this duty, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire deliberately and skilfully to manage their environment. This was one of the most important responsibilities that Aboriginal people had, designed to prevent the over-exploitation or destruction of resources by fire.

The practice involved the lightning of frequent ‘cool’ fires in targeted areas during the early dry season when weather conditions were right. This ensured fires were burned slowly and controlled carefully so that they were low intensity and did not burn all the area, in turn creating a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches of trees and grasslands.

This created fire breaks and removed fuel loads for larger fires in the very hot later dry season. As a result, intense bushfires were uncommon, the fire regime changed to one of more frequent low intensity fires. In doing so, a rich biodiversity of plant life was protected and maintained, as well as habitat for mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds.

The burning also encouraged the regeneration of useful food plants for cooking, warmth, signally and spiritual reasons. Eucalypts would throw out new leaves, and grasses and plants would grow afresh from the burnt ground. And with the woody understorey removed, many of the orchids and lilies could flourish. Such regrowth was important for diets as many of the vegetable foods that were eaten by the Aboriginals – for example, ferns, grasses, leaves and shoots of trees – are more palatable when young.

Hardy Australian eucalypts recovering just weeks after bush fires.

In many parts of Australia, the burning was also used as a method of hunting, as Aboriginals clubbed or speared the animals which broke cover from the fire. Foraging over the burnt area also revealed animals such as lizards hiding in holes or burnt to death on the ground. And then, as the fires recycled nutrients and promoted growth, new herbivores were attracted to the area that could be hunted, as were game such as kangaroos which favoured the more open country.

A final major purpose of the burnings was to facilitate travel for nomadic groups by making access easier through thick and prickly vegetation. Setting fire to the bush removed the undergrowth for easier travelling and also killed or increased awareness of snakes and other vermin.

European Fire Regime

The intimate relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the land was violently interrupted by European colonization. With the removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional homelands, forced assimilation and the banning of indigenous languages, the knowledge of cultural burning was supressed.

At first the Europeans took note of the Indigenous peoples’ use of fire and the landscapes that had been created, often describing parklands through which movement was easily possible. When expeditions began exploring the countryside around Sydney, they encountered a range of vegetation; environments reminded them of the manicured parks of England, with trees well-spaced and a grassy understory.

However, the Europeans saw fire as a threat rather than a tool that could be harnessed to manage the scrub and increase the productivity of the environment. They feared it for it could destroy their houses, their crops, and it could destroy them. So, as European settlement spread out from Sydney, the traditional burning practices ceased, replaced by poor land management that neglected the use of fire.

As a result, the grass plains gave way to thick scrub and bushland, less biodiverse and more prone to intense bushfires. This led to the emergence of large, uncontrolled, destructive wildfires occurring late in the dry season. Today, these fires continue to increase in size, frequency, and severity due to rising temperatures and more extreme droughts caused by climate change. Often these wildfires impact grazing pasture, infrastructure, and other assets.

Views of the bush fire at Mount Solitary in Blue Mountains after sunset at dusk light

Current Use

Despite cultural burning practices having been severely disrupted across Australia, in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, these traditions of fire management have managed to continue unbroken for some 50,000 years. And recently, custodians from these areas have been reintroducing the practice to other Aboriginal groups.

Indeed, we are now witnessing a reinvigoration of traditional fire management, spurred on especially since the 1993 introduction of native title and reclamation of 6.1 million hectares of Aboriginal land, as well as the growing recognition that western fire prevention methods have not been working effectively. Already the practice is in extensive use across the country, particularly in the north where native grasses grow more vigorously in summer and need to be controlled, and where Indigenous communities actively manage the land.

Dawn & native grasses in the Northern Territory outback

Meanwhile, several Indigenous groups are collaborating with non indigenous farmers and other land managers to adopt land management practices closer to those used by Australia’s first inhabitants, adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. These include the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbances from logging and fire, and feral animals.

Also, some Australian states have now integrated cultural burnings with other fire-prevention strategies. State investment in Indigenous fire planning strategies has been most widespread in northern Australia, with data suggesting the introduction of traditional burning on a large scale had significantly reduced the area of land destroyed by wildfires.

Hazard Reduction & Cultural Burning

Elsewhere around Australia, Western-style controlled burning, also known as hazard reduction burning, has become a well-accepted fire management practice to reduce fuel loads and decrease the severity and spread of wildfires. A key justification for this type of program is that it emulates the burning practices undertaken by Aboriginal people. However, there are key differences between the two.

While Aboriginal fire management is proactive, hazard reduction burns are reactive. Hazard reduction does not normally stop fire ignitions but is generally deployed in a restricted way to strategically slow the progression of a fire so that firefighters may have a chance to contain it. They often rely on starting fires from the air to get sufficient landscape coverage in remote areas, resulting in bigger fires and much courser burn mosaics than from traditional burning. They are also less flexible as they are typically constrained to the working week, specific seasons and weather conditions, and to the middle of the day when flying conditions are safe.

With traditional burning, in contrast, Aboriginal people travel by foot, meaning they have a much greater situational awareness of likely fire behaviour and impacts. They are also able to choose the timing using specific weather windows (such as foggy conditions) and times of day (such as the evening) to ensure that fires remain under control and do not damage fire-sensitive habitats. In doing so, they are able to create very localised fuel reduction.

In all, hazard reduction burning has been shown to have very little effect on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather. And, especially after the destructive 2019-2020 Australian bushfire crisis, experts are increasing calling for the greater use of traditional Aboriginal burning. But these practices cannot just be added to existing non-Aboriginal practices: Aboriginal people must be involved as they know when, where, and how to burn. For this to happen, more investment is needed, and policies need to shift to allow Aboriginal fire experts to use their craft on country.

Green shrubs with blackened and smoking forest of eucalypts behind

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