Contemporary fire management
Combining traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management techniques with new technologies can improve environmental outcomes and reduce bushfire risk.
History of fire and fire management
Fire has been a part of the Australian landscape for millions of years, and there is mounting evidence that Aboriginal fire management practices shaped Australian landscapes by maintaining open vegetation and creating habitat for game species1 without destroying fire-sensitive species2. The extent of fire management was deliberate and skilful, using a detailed knowledge of the land to reduce the extent and intensity of fires, allowing fire-sensitive plant communities, such as those in the Tasmanian wilderness or the native Cypress Pine in the north, to survive in highly flammable landscapes3.
Destructive bushfires have become more common in the 20th and 21st centuries, due to changes in land management. These include more restrictions on preventive burning, with increasing urbanisation and infrastructure. In addition, climate change has placed increasing pressure on the way fire is managed, fuelling debate over how fire can be managed sustainably in the landscape. Modern technology can used in collaboration with traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practices, technologies and knowledge to achieve better fire management results.
Some traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander methods of fire management inform current fire management practices, such as backburning and dropping fire-starting devices from helicopters. These methods are based on Aboriginal traditions of walking the landscape starting small fires in patches, or mosaics, and a similar effect can be achieved by dropping fire-starting devices from helicopters under safe weather conditions. This approach also involves use of technologies such as satellite imagery, GPS and meteorology.
Planned burns reduce fuel loads, but using small ‘cool’ fires in good weather is critical to its success. Modern planned burns can restricted the full implementation of these methods and limit participants to much shorter periods of time than is required. Many land owners and managers are constrained by their work hours, duties and working week, do not have the capacity to notify other landholders, and have limited capacity to stay to ensure the fire is safe. These constraints mean many fire service providers prefer a hot quick burn to enable them to move onto the next job, which is not ideal from an ecological perspective, as bigger hotter fires that can damage or kill large trees, leaving more space for undesirable weeds and undergrowth to return.
Using Aboriginal fire management can help address some of these issues, as it involves more people who can spend time looking after slow-moving fires, and can use their traditional knowledge of where and how burns should be done. This approach requires a high degree of community consultation and cooperation, and in some areas where traditional knowledge has been lost, it must be slowly revitalised with research and engagement on country with traditional owners. In addition, extensive land clearing and the introduction of weeds have profoundly changed ecosystems, and the way they respond to fire. This requires new approaches that all must adapt to.
Modern technology: incendiary devices
Incendiary devices are self-igniting objects that are dropped from helicopters into areas to be burned. This allows fast access to remote areas that would otherwise be inaccessible on foot, such as in mountainous areas and dense forest4.
The devices are small ping-pong like balls, chemically programmed to ignite about 30 seconds after they are injected on board the helicopter with ethylene glycol. They are immediately released out of the helicopter after being injected, so they sit on the ground for a short while before igniting.
The balls are dropped in a planned manner to burn the area in a mosaic pattern, with about 50% burnt and 50% remaining unburnt. The aim is to reduce fuel loads across large areas before dangerous bushfire conditions arise. When summer bushfires do start in these areas, they will be less intense than they otherwise would have been.
In Aboriginal traditions, this burning would be carried out in cool weather conditions, where fires will self-extinguish and not cause large intense bushfires. Large-scale aerial burns can be done to protect water catchments, highways and other assets, forest regrowth areas and wildlife, and to help forest regenerate. They can also protect cultural assets, like historic sites, heritage buildings, scar trees and burial sites.
Fire management in Northern Australia
Aboriginal traditional owners and park rangers in Kakadu5 work together and help each other to do burns. Traditional Owners share thousands of years of knowledge, and rangers share skills and technology.
"When the spear grass gets dry and it got a little bit of water down below on the ground, that's when we do an early burn so we don't get hot fire, sometimes I fly with the helicopter to burn from the air and I go down work with the staff ranger.
“We got to protect rare plants also, burn around so the fire won't burn them and we've got to watch which way the wind blowing, don't burn when the wind is blowing otherwise you have really hot fire.
"[When it's done] it looks healthy, green, you see all the birds, animals eating the grass, then we feel happy.” – Bessie Coleman6.
In the Kimberley region, successive hot fires can reduce landscapes to bare scorched earth, leaving little refuge or food for animals7. Kimberley fire planners are now abandoning linear fire breaks and are replacing these with many ‘scar-like’ patchwork burns across entire landscapes, using helicopters to drop incendiary devices in selected areas. The result is thriving communities of vegetation, with areas of mixed ages, keeping patches of vegetation at low risk of fire that can act as refuges to threatened mammals and sensitive plants.
Fire management in Central Australia
Central Land Council (CLC) work with traditional owners to manage fire in Central Australia8:
Since 2007, CLC provided planning, governance and on-ground support through groups and directly to Aboriginal rangers. The approach combines traditional knowledge with satellite imagery, fuel load mapping, and aerial incendiary technology. Rangers are trained in firefighting, and aerial incendiary operations.
Traditional Owners have in some areas set up carbon abatement businesses, e.g. Karlantijpa North Kurrawarra Nyura Mala Aboriginal Corporation, with the help of the Central Land Council. Carbon abatement is a sustainable potential source of revenue for modern economies, particularly in the face of climate change. Carbon abatement is the process earning ‘carbon credits’ that are calculated from the reduction in emissions that the low intensity fires provide, compared to estimates of emissions that would otherwise have resulted from uncontrolled fires.
Rangers and traditional owners burn the area during the cool season, generating carbon credits and using these to fund further work on land. The Clean Energy Regulator approved a low rainfall carbon abatement methodology in 2015 and the Commonwealth Department Environment Biodiversity Fund has assisted initial consultations and burning work9.
Classroom activity - Technologies (Design and Technologies) Years 9 and 10
Students will investigate the interaction between traditional knowledge of fire management and new technologies. Using case studies they will show how fire management has evolved and suggest ways of improving or augmenting the technology.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
Explain how products, services and environments evolve with consideration of preferred futures and the impact of emerging technologies on design decisions (ACTDEK041)
Investigate and make judgments, within a range of technologies specialisations, on how technologies can be combined to create designed solutions (ACTDEK047)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in Technologies (Design and Technologies):
- explain how people working in design and technologies occupations consider factors that impact on design decisions and the technologies used to produce products, services and environments
- evaluate the features of technologies and their appropriateness for purpose for one or more of the technologies contexts
- create designed solutions for one or more of the technologies contexts based on a critical evaluation of needs or opportunities
- select and use appropriate technologies skilfully and safely to produce high-quality designed solutions suitable for the intended purpose
Activity 1 – Fire balls
Suggested timing for activity: 20 to 30 mins
Required resources: notebooks, pens
- How has the use of modern technology used in fire management and prevention drawn on the traditional knowledge and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
- After going through the explanations of incendiary devices and how they work being dropped from helicopters in remote areas, as a class, brainstorm ideas on other ways this technology could be used, for example:
- Dropping fire balls in different patterns
- Avoiding fire-sensitive areas using GPS
- Dropping balls to create a back-burn to protect infrastructure
- What other technology could be combined with use of helicopters or other aircraft in fire management?
- The goal of combining traditional knowledge with modern fire science has been to reduce fire loads and risk of bushfire, mainly to protect infrastructure. What other outcomes can be achieved? E.g. environmental outcomes.
- What other aspects of Traditional knowledge could be incorporated into modern fire management?
- How is collaboration and teamwork between different community members important?
- How does the carbon abatement scheme provide economic sustainability to this type of land management? Consider the expenses of running helicopters, etc.
Activity 2 – New fire technologies
Suggested timing for activity: one lesson, plus homework if applicable
Required resources: Notebooks, pens
- Research the latest in fire technology – this can be anything from fire retardant and heat protectant clothing, to real-time heat-sensing aerial imagery
- Students can develop ideas and plans to find new uses of new or existing technology, or new combinations of technology, to create a solution relevant to fire management.
- Students should prepare drawings and notes that explain their ideas.
- Describe specific problems the new technology addresses, for example:
- Fire is a problem for pastoralists because it destroys fences. How could new technology find a solution to this problem, to make conducting burns easier?
- Fire can help protect particular threatened species, e.g. small mammals. Select a particular animal and relate the new technology to the protection of a species, e.g. protecting its favourite food source or nesting area.
1 Bowman, D. (2016) Aboriginal fire management – part of the solution to destructive bushfires. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-fire-management-part-of-the-solution-to-destructive-bushfires-55032
2 Pincock, S. (2013) Genes extinguish Aboriginal fire theory. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/10/30/3879452.htm
3 Bowman, D. (2016) op. cit.
4 Gray, D. (2009) Great balls of fire join battle for the bush. Retrieved from: https://www.smh.com.au/national/great-balls-of-fire-join-battle-for-the-bush-20090424-ai4q.html
5 Fowler, C. (2016) Kakadu National Park: Traditional burning methods and modern science form a fiery partnership. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2016-08-12/traditional-owners-fire-management-kakadu/7730254
6 Fowler, C. (2016) op. cit.
7 Laurie, V. (2010) Radical fire plan for the Kimberley. Retrieved from: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2010/08/radical-fire-plan-for-the-kimberley/
8 Fire Management (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://www.clc.org.au/index.php?/articles/info/fire-management1
9 Fire Management (n.d.) op. cit.
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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.