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 only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns



Hazard reduction burns reduce bushfire fuel loads, but the current approach is not working.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

As monstrous blazes overwhelm Australia’s south-east, the need for a national bushfire policy has never been more urgent. Active land management such as hazard-reduction burning and forest thinning must lie at the core of any such policy.

Done well, controlled burning limits a bushfire’s spread and makes suppression easier, by reducing the amount of flammable material. Clearing or thinning vegetation on roadsides and other areas also helps maintain fuel breaks, allowing firefighters access to forests in an emergency.




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As former fire chiefs recently pointed out, of all factors driving a fire’s severity – temperature, wind speed, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load – fuel load is the only one humans can influence.

The royal commission into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires identified serious shortcomings in land and fuel management, primarily the domain of the states. Ten years ago I also called for a national approach to bushfires, including vegetation management.

Relatively little has changed since. It is as though Australia suffers collective and institutional amnesia when it comes to bushfire preparedness. But the threat will only escalate. Australia must have a sustained commitment to better land management.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meeting South Australian firefighters, says bushfire management is a state responsibility.
AAP/Kelly Barnes

The three pillars of dealing with bushfires

Bushfire management comprises three planks: preparation, response and recovery.

Preparation involves managing fuel loads and vegetation, maintaining access to tracks and fire breaks, planning fire response and ensuring sufficient human capacity and resources to respond to worst-case scenarios.

Response involves deploying aircraft, fire trucks and firefighting personnel, and recovery requires social, financial and institutional support.




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The federal government mostly focuses on bushfire response and recovery, which now falls under the Department of Home Affairs and the responsible Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud.

After major fire events in the 2000s, the Commonwealth committed significant resources to response. This included contributing to the cost of more fire-fighting planes and helicopters, and research funding.

A helicopter tackling a bushfire in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
Victorian government

But what about fire preparation?

Prescribed burning is considered a key element of bushfire preparation. While there is some debate over its effect on a fire’s impact, the Victorian bushfire royal commission concluded fuel modification at a sufficient scale can reduce the impact of even high-intensity fires.

Other management actions include thinning dense forest areas, reducing the shrub layer mechanically where burning is not possible and maintaining fire breaks. As the climate changes, we may consider changing the tree species mix.

The newly merged Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is the federal agency with most interest in land management. However other agencies such as the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources share some responsibilities.

Federal funding for land management deals with single issues such as weeds, feral animals, threatened species or water quality. Funding is often piecemeal, doled out to government bodies or community groups with little coordination. As federal programs are implemented, states often withdraw funding.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and other experts have warned fuel reduction burning is “constrained by a shortage of resources in some states and territories”, as well as by warmer, drier weather which reduces the number of days burning can be undertaken.

A hazard reduction operation by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Blue Mountains. Fire experts say such services are underfunded.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

At state level, since the major fires of the 2000s, funding for fire management has increased and coordination between fire response and land management agencies has improved.

However, the focus of the two groups remains divided, which can thwart progress. Fire services prioritise protecting lives and property once fires are going, while forest and land management agencies focus on reducing fire risk, and must consider a wider range of natural and community values.

In a rapidly changing climate, land management requires a long-term adaptive strategy, underpinned by sound analysis and research, supporting laws and policies, with sufficient funding and human resources. Bipartisan political support and leadership continuity is needed to sustain it.

A national approach

State agencies cannot carry the full financial burden for fire preparedness. With fire events happening in almost all states and territories, it is clear we need a national approach.

The federal government collects most tax revenue and should contribute a greater share of the costs of prescribed burning, maintaining access, fire detection, and rapid firefighting response.

Federal spending on land management can be better integrated to engage and protect communities, conserve biodiversity, maintain water quality, manage forest carbon emissions and improve forest resilience to future fires. Recent federal investments in savannah burning in northern Australia are a good example of this.

The Gospers Mountain Fire at Bilpin, NSW.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

A federal bureau of bushfire and land management could support national policy and coordinate investment, including monitoring and reporting on forest and land condition. State agencies, local authorities and private landowners could continue to provide management to meet national targets.

Commitment to public education is also critical. Many people do not understand the need for appropriate human interventions, such as prescribed burning or thinning, to protect the forests we all enjoy. We must also learn from traditional owners about how to live in our country and manage land with fire.

In December, the federal government initiated an inquiry into the efficacy of vegetation and land management and bushfires. This inquiry needs to be expanded, avoiding the simplified debates of the past, and bring together all parties to identify solutions.




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As one of the most urbanised countries on Earth, there are few votes to be gained in more spending on rural land management. Hazard reduction is a sometimes risky, labour-intensive measure, and tensions between reducing fuel loads and conserving the environment must be managed.

However after the grief, anger and recriminations from these fires have passed, it’s time for an urgent national rethink – and the Morrison government must lead the way.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

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

A surprising answer to a hot question: controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire



Firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire approaches homes at Woodford NSW, Friday, November 8, 2019. Calls for more controlled burning are common after a major bushfire.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

Trent Penman, University of Melbourne; Kate Parkins, University of Melbourne, and Sarah McColl-Gausden, University of Melbourne

As sure as night follows day, this week’s bushfires prompted inevitable debate about whether fire authorities should have carried out more hazard reduction burning, and whether opposition from conservationists prevented this.

There are two key points to remember when we consider these questions. First, the impact on human life and property – not the impact on the environment – is the number one concern in the minds of fire officials when deciding whether to conduct a controlled burn. Second, and perhaps more importantly, evidence shows increasing the frequency or area of controlled burns does not necessarily reduce the bushfire risk.

In fact, during extreme fire danger conditions, reduced fuel loads – such as those achieved through hazard reduction burning – do little to moderate bushfire behaviour.

Firefighters protecting homes near Woodford, NSW as a bushfire approaches.
AAP

Officals under heat to cut fuel loads

Hazard reduction burning, also known as prescribed or controlled burning, is primarily used to prevent the spread of bushfires by reducing the build-up of flammable fuel loads such as leaf litter, grasses and shrubs.

Authorities routinely come under pressure to reduce bushfire fuel loads – especially in the wake of a bushfire crisis like the one seen on the east coast in recent days.

Media and mining magnate Kerry Stokes this week called for more controlled burning, saying this was a more pressing concern than climate change in dealing with bushfires.

And Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce reportedly lashed out at the Greens and others for purportedly opposing controlled burning and land clearing, claiming “there is all this bureaucracy that stands in the way of people keeping their place safe”.

The hazards of hazard reduction

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce this week said ‘bureaucracy’ was getting in the way of rural landowners conducting hazard reduction on their properties.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Bushfire hazard reduction is not as simple as dropping a match indiscriminately and standing back to watch the landscape burn. Fire agencies must assess the risks and manage the potential impacts. These assessments are made in the years and months prior to the burn, as well as on the day.

Fire authorities invest significant time preparing for a controlled burn program. They work with communities to develop a plan and a rigorous process guides how, where and when the burns will be undertaken.

Protecting human life and property from the effects of a burn is the first priority, and by far represents the greatest challenge. Other impacts are also assessed in the process. These include effects on the environment, Indigenous and European cultural assets and sporting events.




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Despite extensive planning, over the past decade prescribed burns have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses, such as at Margaret River in Western Australia in 2013 and Lancefield, Victoria in 2015. To prevent a repeat of this, policies require burns only proceed when the weather is suitable not just on the day, but for three to five days afterwards. This has meant many burns do not go ahead or are delayed for years.

Smoke from fires can increase mortality and hospitalisation rates, and so the effect on human health is playing an increasing role in whether to burn or not. Viticulture concerns have also delayed burns because smoke can also destroy grapes used in wine production.

Thick smoke blankets Sydney Harbour in May 2019 after hazard reduction burns.
AAP

Controlled burns may not slow bushfires

Even if we were to carry out more controlled burns, it does not necessarily follow that bushfire risk would be reduced.

Controlled burns do not remove all fuels from an area. And forests accumulate fuel at different rates – some return to their pre-burn fuel loads in as few as three years.




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Our research has shown controlled burning was likely to have reduced the area later burnt by bushfires in only four of 30 regions examined in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT.

Evidence from a range of studies demonstrates fuel loads can significantly modify fire behaviour under benign weather conditions. But reduced fuel loads do little for bushfire mitigation under extreme fire weather and in times of drought.

A burnt-out structure on a property devastated by bushfires at Coutts Crossing in Northern NSW, November 2019.
Jason O’Brien/AAP

Looking to the future

Evidence is mounting of increased bushfire frequency and extent in both Australia and the US – a situation predicted to worsen under climate change. Changing weather patterns mean opportunities for controlled burning will likely diminish further. Coupled with expanding populations in high fire-risk areas, Australia’s fire agencies – among the best in the world – have a challenging time ahead.




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In future, we must think beyond traditional approaches to fire management. Acknowledging the role of climate change in altering natural hazards and the impact they have on humans and the environment is the first step. Communities should also be at the centre of decisions, so they understand and act on the risks.The Conversation

Trent Penman, Associate professor, University of Melbourne; Kate Parkins, Bushfire Risk Analyst, University of Melbourne, and Sarah McColl-Gausden, PhD student, University of Melbourne

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