Co-design in fire management

Co-design in fire management

Fire management plans that use both both traditional Aboriginal fire knowledge and western science are found to result in better outcomes for communities.

Fire management plans are essential tools for all land owners and managers and co-designing them with local Aboriginal people who maintain their fire traditions has become an important part of fire planning and prevention regimes. The controlled burns that follow Aboriginal traditions are called ‘cultural burning.’

Evolution of fire management

On mainland Australia, thousands of years of Aboriginal fire management has shaped plant and animals communities. This has made the land productive for human habitation and reduced the risk of large bushfires by reducing fuel loads. A combination of changes, including reduced Aboriginal fire regimes and non-Indigenous people’s reluctance to burn, has led to a shift in natural ecosystems, such that fuel loads build up and cause devastating wildfires. These have been managed with many modern methods based on western science and technology, such as helicopter water bombing, modern fire fighting equipment, weather forecasting technology and GPS, which in many areas have been combined with traditional Aboriginal fire knowledge and techniques.

Types of fires

There is more than one kind of fire. Most people would be familiar with and may have experienced uncontrolled hot fire (bushfire or wildfire), which is dangerous, destructive and terrifying. Conditions such as good rain, which promotes plant growth, followed by long hot dry spells that dry out abundant plant fuel loads, coupled with high winds are factors that contribute to the worst bushfire conditions. These conditions can lead to catastrophic disasters as have been seen in different parts of Australia in recent years.

There are also ‘cool’ fires that are typical of Aboriginal fire traditions. These are used to propogate fire-dependent tree and plant species and, used carefully, according to tradition, also create conservation areas for fire-sensitive flora. This burning is carried out under good conditions where the fire is unlikely get out of control and will burn along slowly1. Some plants need fire or smoke for their seeds to germinate, e.g. some banksias and gum trees, but the seeds will still be destroyed in an intense hot fire. Sometimes burns are carried out soon after rain to minimise the risk of fire getting out of control, e.g. on sandy land, which dries out very quickly, a day or two after rain is the safest time.

Hot fires can cause stress to or even kill large gum trees, and cause the understorey, e.g. wattles or weeds, to grow back too thickly preventing people and animals from passing through or using these areas. This thick understorey regrowth can provide fuel for more hot intense fires, killing the parent gum trees and causing even more wattles to return. Instead, using regular cool fires over long periods of time create ideal conditions for healthy trees, native grasses and a more open understorey.2

Planning for fires

Fire planning can assist landholders to use fire as a management tool to protect and enhance cultural and ecological values, as well as reducing risk to life and property3. These can also help to strengthen communication within communities to assist with some of the planning issues that often make it difficult to carry out cool, slower-burning fires at the right time, when the right weather conditions present themselves – seeking permissions from landholders, fire services and notifying neighbours. Having a plan in place can streamline the process to carry out burning that prevents wildfires. People working together, e.g. landholders, fire services, and rangers, is key to improving land management.

It is important to follow cultural protocols when engaging traditional owners in fire management planning. For many reasons cultural knowledge is restricted and access to this information is protected. Any data collected must only be used according to the agreement and understanding with the Aboriginal organisations or local Aboriginal land council and community. It is best to directly engage traditional owners so they can remain in charge of their knowledge and how it is used, and to work at a comfortable pace to allow people to feel in control of the process. Sharing of important information like this is always built on trust.

Some key steps in fire planning include:

  1. Compiling documents, such as a Plan of Management, water sources, flora and fauna surveys, vegetation types, fire thresholds and cultural values. Identify what is already available for the area.
  2. Maps – Google Earth or Google Maps (satellite view) is a great resource as imagery is regularly updated. Try to include roads and fire trails. Old maps are great for comparison, e.g. before and after a big fire.
  3. Fire History – personal knowledge, personal observation (e.g. evidence of fire on trees), old photos, neighbours, fire brigades.
  4. Make links with local rangers, parks, and fire service4. Keeping in mind fire services do not usually do cultural burning, they use different methods and usually have strict time restraints, but it’s important that groups work together in planning.
  5. Ongoing management plan to keep fuel loads down.
  6. Emergency response plan for when fires do occur.
  7. Having good connections between groups e.g. Community Fire Services (CFS) and Indigenous groups makes it easier to seek proper permissions for fire management, such as permission to enter private property or work with land owners and traditional owners..

For more detailed information refer to:

Case Study: Firesticks (NSW)

Firesticks is a platform to support landholders to access resources, support, training, advocacy for ongoing funding and to share their experiences and knowledge with others5. It goes through a step by step process to enable elders to teach others in the way they want to teach and pass on knowledge. The process is similar to traditional ways, but modern technology is used as well e.g. GPS.

The Firesticks concept involves all participants everyone is doing the same things – controlled ‘cool’ fires, so that country becomes healthy for everyone’s benefit. Combining science, community consultation, building relationships between stakeholders and communities leads to better outcomes for the whole community. In the past there have been policy and legislative impediments to burning with traditional methods, but these need to be overcome to make opportunities to practice cultural burning.

Understanding of the land features and characteristics by undertaking monitoring and surveys before burning is important so that information about vegetation types, soil types, animals, the condition of the land is considered to inform decisions about when and where to burn. It is common in modern society for people to feel disconnected from country, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It is important for everyone’s benefit to spend time on country. Walking on country with the fire as it burns enables people to spend time together talking about the fire, sharing knowledge and observations, and watching what happens with the fire. Practising these things together with Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups improves communication and strengthens relationships within communities, which builds a stronger community where people understand each other better, and are likely to be more resilient if or when bushfires do happen.

Classroom activity - Technologies (Design and Technologies) Years 5 and 6

Fire management plans are essential for all landowners and managers, both Indigenous and non Indigenous. Students will learn about fire management plans and do a mapping exercise for a local area, such as a park or school playground.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

Generate, develop and communicate design ideas and processes for audiences using appropriate technical terms and graphical representation techniques (ACTDEP025)

Develop project plans that include consideration of resources when making designed solutions individually and collaboratively (ACTDEP028)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 5 and 6 in Technologies (Design and Technologies):

  • describe how design and technologies contribute to meeting present and future needs
  • suggest criteria for success, including sustainability considerations, and use these to evaluate their ideas and designed solutions
  • combine design ideas and communicate these to audiences using graphical representation techniques and technical terms

Activity 1 – Fire in your community

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: computer, internet, notebooks, pens, coloured pencils

Students will research background information on their local area to inform their bushfire management plan map in Activity 2.

  1. Students can break into groups to research one subheading and compile information as a class. Subheadings include:
    • General overview of area – region, population, urban or rural, plantations, national parks, etc.
    • Climate – growing season, rainfall, length of hot dry weather, lightning
    • Topography – flat, undulating, mountainous, river systems
    • Bushfire fuels – vegetation types, how much area they cover, how dense are they?
    • Assets – town sites, construction areas, bridges, other infrastructure, historical sites, Aboriginal cultural sites, bush areas of high conservation value
    • Access – description of type and quality of roads – e.g. one-way, two-way, gravel, 4WD only. Note any barriers, e.g. swamps, rivers, sand ridges
    • Water supply – both domestic and external – hydrants, rivers, tanks, bores
  2. Research local traditional fire knowledge if available. The best place would be to ask local Aboriginal corporation or other organisation for assistance.
  3. Based on this information, discuss the following inquiry-based questions:
    • When would be the safest time of year to do burning, or times of year or particular conditions on a daily basis that should be avoided.
    • What local groups are responsible for fire management – Country Fire Service, State Emergency Services, council, rangers, landholders etc, or a combination of these. What kind of activities do they do?
    • How could you involve multiple groups in working together to make a plan to manage fire together?
    • Discuss personal experiences: have you ever experienced a big fire, does your family have a bushfire plan at home?

Activity 2 – Mapping for fire management

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: large paper e.g. A3, notebooks, pens, coloured pencils, tracing paper

Following on from Activity 1, students will work through a process of compiling information into maps and discussing fire management as a group, similar to the process of compiling a community Fire Management Plan.

For an example of a community Fire Management Plan process see

  1. Use a large printed map of your school or town area (e.g. a topographic map or other existing map) – you can either draw directly onto this, or overlay tracing paper to draw on details. Alternatively, each group can draw a map of school area, showing buildings, other infrastructure and bush areas.
  2. Label maps with a title, include a north arrow, and important land tenure, e.g. national parks, significant neighbours, as well as main roads
  3. Either by walking around your school, or using Google Earth, add infrastructure to your map – you can overlay your map with a new piece of tracing paper – buildings, fences, power lines, roads and trails/paths, gates (locked/unlocked?), and all water sources. Identify your school’s emergency assembly point.
  4. On a new pieces of tracing paper, Identify community values, both Indigenous and non Indigenous. Some examples are:
    • Scar trees, or other significant trees
    • Rock art
    • Cemeteries and burial places
    • Swimming holes
    • Historic sites
  5. Identify ecological values - vegetation types, wetlands, old growth forest, endangered species.
  6. On the map, rate vegetation areas as Low Fire Risk, Medium Fire Risk, High Fire Risk – you can look at vegetation on aerial imagery to decide, e.g. differentiate between dense forest and grassland, or if you live in a very rainforested area with high rainfall, this can also inform the level of risk.
  7. Using the maps, discuss as a class the assets you identified to protect (e.g. scar trees, school buildings, etc), and consider:
    • Is fire a big risk in your area, e.g. climate?
    • How you could reduce fire risk – should there be more space between bushland and buildings?
    • Where should controlled fires be used? What time of year?
    • What roads and access could you use to fight fire in an emergency? Where is water access located?
  8. Discuss the following inquiry-based questions:
    • The role of technology (e.g. fire trucks, weather forecasting) vs planning (e.g. reducing fire loads).
    • How perspectives from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other community members can work together to keep communities safe?
    • How can you make sure everyone in the community is happy with this plan?
    • How might building positive relationships in the community during planning help in emergency situations?


1 McKillop, C. (2016) Traditional knowledge of Indigenous fire practices burns pathway to safer, healthier country, Retrieved from:

2 McKillop, C. (2016) op. cit.

3 Firesticks (n.d.) Guide for developing a Fire Management Plan. Retrieved from:

4 McKillop, C. (2016) op. cit.

5 Firesticks (n.d.) Retrieved from:

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.