Australia, you have unfinished business. It’s time to let our ‘fire people’ care for this land



Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, conducting cool season burning on Martu Country.
Tony Jupp,The Nature Conservancy

David Bowman, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, University of Tasmania

Since last summer’s bushfire crisis, there’s been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. It’s now more widely understood that Aboriginal people used landscape burning to sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.

The Morrison government’s bushfire royal commission, which began hearings this week, recognises the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management.

Its terms of reference seek to understand ways “the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.

Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is essential to tackling future bushfire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustices, by appropriating Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So while the bushfire threat demands urgent action, we must also take care.

Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-overdue accompaniment to recent advances in land rights and native title. It is an essential part of the unfinished business of post-colonial Australia.

Grant Stewart, a ranger from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. The benefits of Indigenous fire practices are becoming well-known.
Louie Davis

A living record

Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush.

Broadly, it involved numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burnt and unburnt patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant. This benefited wildlife and sustained a biodiversity of animals and plants.

Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen dramatic biodiversity declines, tree invasion of grasslands and more frequent and destructive bushfires.




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In many parts of Australia, particularly densely settled areas, cultural burning practices have been severely disrupted. But in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management date back to the mid to late Pleistocene some 50,000 years ago.

Not all nations can draw on these living records of traditional fire management.

Indigenous people around the world, including in western Europe, used fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialisation, intensive agriculture and colonisation led to these practices being lost.

In most cases, historical records are the only way to learn about them.

Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, by Joseph Lycett. Indigenous people have used cultural fire practices for thousands of years.
National Library of Australia

Rising from the ashes

In Australia, many Aboriginal people are rekindling cultural practices, sometimes in collaboration with non-indigenous land managers. They are drawing on retained community knowledge of past fire practices – and in some cases, embracing practices from other regions.

Burning programs can be 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.




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This process is outlined well in Victor Steffensen’s recent book Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Steffensen describes how, as an Aboriginal man born into two cultures, he made a journey of self-discovery – learning about fire management while being guided and mentored by two Aboriginal elders.

Together, they reintroduced fire into traditional lands on Cape York. These practices had been prohibited after European-based systems of land tenure and management were imposed.

Steffensen extended his experience to cultural renewal and ecological restoration across Australia, arguing this was critical to addressing the bushfire crisis:

The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land […] A skilled team of indigenous and non-indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for the community.

Making it happen

So how do we realise this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are a practical way to protect and extend Aboriginal burning cultures.

Specifically, such programs should provide ways for Aboriginal people and communities to:

  • develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
  • maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
  • enter mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
  • enter a broad cross section of agencies, and community groups involved in fire management.

This will require rapidly building capacity to train and employ Aboriginal fire practitioners.

In some instances, where the impact of colonisation has been most intense, action is needed to support Aboriginal communities to re-establish relationships with forested areas, following generations of forced removal from their Country.




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Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to re-establish their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for Country. Where these differ from the Eurocentric values of mainstream Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have been custodians of this flammable landscape for millennia.

Non-indigenous Australians should also pay for these ancient skills. Funding schemes could include training, and ensuring affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.

Involving Aboriginal people and communities in the development of fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared on culturally agreed terms.

Fire people, fire country

In many ways, last summer’s fire season is a reminder of the brutal acquisition of land in Australia and its ongoing consequences for all Australians.

The challenges involved in helping to right this wrong, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are complex. They span social justice, funding, legal liability, cultural rights, fire management and science.

Fundamentally, we must recognise that Aborigines are “fire people” who live on “fire country”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.

Andry Sculthorpe of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre contributed to this article.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no evidence ‘greenies’ block bushfire hazard reduction but here’s a controlled burn idea worth trying



Locally managed hazard reduction could give communities greater ownership over prevention and leverage local knowledge.
David Bowman, Author provided

Jason Alexandra, RMIT University and David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The current bushfire crisis provides compelling evidence of the dangers posed by extremely dry landscapes and hot, windy conditions.

While there’s no evidence “greenies” precipitated the current crisis by blocking hazard reduction, it is clear that we need to explore new ways to manage fuel loads to reduce the severity of bushfires.

It is worth considering how local, self organised, place-based, community groups could be supported to conduct various types of strategic hazard reduction, including targeted grazing and prescribed or fuel reduction burning.

Using the Landcare model for bushfire hazard reduction

One model we could look to is Landcare, which has enjoyed 30 years of bipartisan support. Funded and supported by governments, local, semi-autonomous, self-directed groups aim to take a sustainable approach to land management through on-ground projects such as habitat restoration and improving biodiversity.

This model could be applied to prescribed or fuel reduction burning, carried out by local “GreenFire” groups. This would involve:

1. Developing and resourcing GreenFire groups.

These would be the equivalent of district Landcare groups, but focused on hazard reduction and fuel management. These groups could be encouraged to learn patch-burning techniques, and other landscape scale management practices, such as creating green firebreaks of non-flammable species.

If well coordinated, these techniques would reduce fire hazards across private and public lands. These groups could be an extension of existing Landcare groups combined with volunteer firefighting services. They would aim to increase capacity for fuel management at the landscape scale and provide opportunities for more people to learn skills and share knowledge, with and from professionals working in government forest and national parks agencies.

These kinds of activities, mostly in the cooler, green seasons would enhance the capacity of communities to prepare for future fires, and increase the capacity of traditional fire fighting to suppress dangerous fires.

2. These groups could work under the mentorship and authorisation of fuel management/reduction officers.

These could be public officers such as district fire officers or senior staff of public land management agencies who have had a long involvement in prescribed burning and fuel management on public lands.

3. In each district, fuel reduction periods could be officially declared.
With this declaration state governments would assume liability for fuel reduction fires, so long as they had the appropriate planning, approvals and resourcing (for example, they were undertaken by trained groups and certified by appropriate officials).

4. Fuel reduction burning should employ Indigenous fire rangers, drawing on Indigenous knowledge and celebrating Indigenous patchwork burning practices.

Involving Indigenous communities in such a program would combine traditional and modern burning practices. Blending cultural and modern burning techniques has proven successful in major savanna burning programs reducing carbon emissions from late season fires in Northern Australia.

Prevention is better than firefighting

Land use planning and management play key roles in shaping exposure to bushfire risks, and are therefore central to disaster mitigation.

Under conditions that favour wildfires, no amount of firefighting effort can protect all lives and property. Victoria’s Black Saturday Royal Commission – a comprehensive inquiry into the fires in which 173 people died, more than 5000 were injured and more than 2,000 houses destroyed – found that under extreme conditions, wildfires overwhelm the capacity of emergency services.

South-eastern Australia has long experience of intense fires, yet our population has spread into the bushlands of coastal hinterlands and urban fringes. This has occurred despite scientists warning for more than 30 years that wildfire risks were intensifying due to climate change.

There are no silver bullet fixes to reduce bushfires hazards. But pragmatic approaches based on extensive research have improved disaster responses, supported calls for stricter planning and building codes and quantified the benefits of strategically reducing fuel loads.

We must try creative new ways to reduce risk

Since the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, more than 16 major inquiries have called for greater use of integrated approaches to land use planning and management to minimise disaster risks.

With climate change increasing bushfire impacts and intensities, we need to build capacity in local communities to manage fire hazard. This requires education, training and adapting policies and landscape management practices to devise plans that suit local conditions.

Countless generations of Indigenous people have effectively managed fire risk through skillful burning. It is time to learn how to burn well and to share the techniques and methods that can enable us live well in our flammable landscape.The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, PhD candidate, RMIT University and David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.