Fire and land management: past and present
Aboriginal peoples have developed a continent-wide land management system using fire, a practice which has evolved over millennia.
Living in the landscape
Ideas about a pristine ‘wilderness’ persist in popular imagination in Australia, including in the minds of ecologists and environmental conservationists. In an Australian context, this fails to take into account two key drivers:
- ecological change over time, e.g. in response to sea level rise or ice ages
- the human element of Australian ecological systems, in particular the active role Indigenous Australians played in managing the landscape.
Today, humans are an inextricable part of the landscape. It is possible that Aboriginal people arrived in Australia with existing sophisticated techniques of using fire in the landscape1, as records indicate that Aboriginal people did not have a big negative impact on fire-sensitive plants2, and the evidence suggests they were not responsible for the disappearance of the megafauna3 as has been suggested in the past.
The landscape has been shaped for many thousands of years by the presence and activities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but it was managed sustainably in a way that kept it thriving and healthy. European colonialism irrevocably changed the landscape to what it is today, with concerns over declining ecosystem health, unsustainable land and water management practices, numerous species on the brink of extinction, and climate change. It is important to remember that as humans, we have always lived within ecological systems, not outside them4. e We need to understand our goals for land management: are we aiming to restore Australia as it was before colonisation, or Australia as it was before Aboriginal people arrived more than 50,000 years ago, before the end of the last ice age and complete with megafauna?5 Realistically, we are aiming to achieve a new sustainable balance, acknowledging the land will never be the same as it was prior to colonisation. However, there are many traditional practices which are still of great relevance to land and water management in Australia today.
Fire has been a key element in Aboriginal land management for millennia. Prescribed burning is often a very divisive environmental topic in Australian communities, with scientific research presented both for and against6. It can be seen as destructive and ‘unnatural’, as well as inconvenient to landholders, but the level of destruction really depends on the timing and season in which the burn is carried out.
Traditional Aboriginal fire management in Australia is an excellent example of people shaping the landscape without necessarily being destructive or depleting resources. Traditional fire management doesn’t just relate to traditional lifestyles and hunting, it is also about maximising biodiversity and reducing wildfire risk by reducing fuel loads.
Most traditional fires were relatively low intensity and did not burn large areas. Fire was used to:
- make access easier through thick and prickly vegetation
- maintain a pattern of vegetation to encourage new growth and attract game for hunting
- encourage the development of useful food plants, for cooking, warmth, signalling and spiritual reasons.7
The frequent use of fire by Aboriginal people in daily life intentionally resulted in a ‘fine-grained mosaic’ of different vegetation and fuel ages across the landscape. As a result, large intense bushfires, which are today a common feature in Australia, were once uncommon. While fire has for millions of years been a natural part of the landscape e.g. from lightning fires and in response to dry periods, Aboriginal peoples have used fire intentionally and frequently to reduce fire loads. This reduces the risk of large, intense and dangerous wildfires, and increases productivity of preferred foods, e.g. creating grasslands for kangaroos and for yam and grain harvest, interspersed with forested areas for fruits and possums. ‘Fire-stick farming’ was carried out in pattern with the seasons, not the schedule of transportation, sales listings, buyer demand and profit outcome. Aboriginal farming was based on the needs of the community, and the ecosystem, as opposed to the needs of individuals or businesses8.
Case Study 1: Miriwoong
European ideas of seasons consisting of spring, summer, autumn, winter do not match up well with what different parts of Australian experience. In the north of Western Australia, the Mirriwoong calendar has three major seasons:
- Nyinggiyi-mageny (wet, Dec-Mar) – storms, rain, floods (monsoon time)
- Warnka-mageny (cold, Apr-Aug) – rain clearing early, storm weathering time, cold rain returning late
- Barndenyirriny (hot, Sep-Nov) – clear skies, north wind blowing, build-up9
Traditional Indigenous practice involves burning the native grasses early in the dry season, using small fires lit in a mosaic pattern. Since European settlement, traditional burning practices have declined, leaving savannah grasses to grow and become perfect fuel for uncontrollable fires late in the dry season. Culturally significant sites and biodiversity have been threatened in recent years due to uncontrolled wildfire in the late dry season. Pockets of rare and sensitive monsoonal vine thickets that are habitat for a number of wildlife were at threat. It was also believed that uncontrolled fires were having a significant effect on the quality of water in springs and waterways that held high cultural and environmental significance10.
Traditional mosaic-pattern burns were re-introduced to work in conjunction with modern scientific approaches, reducing fire loads and preventing property losses nearby. The new way of managing incorporates both traditional and modern approaches, consulting both Indigenous and pastoralist communities, prioritising the most vulnerable areas, and revising new fire management plans based on learnings.
Case Study 2: Nyungar
Nyungar (or Nyoongar) country is in the south-west of Western Australia, and has a very different seasonal calendar to the north:
- Birak – first summer (Dec-Jan), dry and hot
- Bunuru – second summer (Feb-Mar) hottest part of the year
- Djeran – autumn (Apr-May) – cooler weather begins
- Makuru – winter (Jun-Jul) – coldest and wettest season
- Djilba – first spring (Aug-Sep) – mix of wet days with increasing clear, cold nights, pleasant days
- Kambarang – second spring (Oct-Nov) – longer dry periods11
Each season has spiritual significance, based on land and plant growth seasons. In Nyungar culture, their relationship with the land is seen as reciprocal: If we care for the land and take care of its needs, it will in turn take care of us.12 Nyungar people feel that because they have tens of thousands of years of experience of the land, their views and ways of managing it should be heard13.
Hot fires over large areas are detrimental to all sections of the forest, killing trees, the seed bank (both on trees and in the topsoil) or forces germination that is too intense, leading to overly dense understorey that chokes ground cover and provides more fuel for more hot fires. Dense understoreys also make it difficult for animals to use the habitat, as their preferred habitats and foods are lost.
‘Cool fire’ can be used to promote a particular type of growth through frequent burning, for example clears undergrowth, promoting diversity in plants, good for better access for people and animals, looks after large established trees, promotes grass and new growth, which attracts animals. Plants that grow after mild fire tend to include more species than before fire. But the practices for using fire in this way are nuanced and complex, and require a detailed knowledge of the land. Burning frequency varies, depending the plant community – whether it’s grass, shrub, forest, and what type of forest – some monthly, some yearly, some every 10-15 years.
Since colonisation, fire management has changed in many areas to either not burning at all or burning at the wrong time; either time of year or too frequently or not enough, can alter or destroy some sub-ecosystems. Combining Nyungar traditional knowledge with modern scientific knowledge can create a very robust land management system. For example, grazing areas can be maintained but must undergo cool fire in mosaic pattern,otherwise lose their quality and health14. It is less clear how traditional knowledge may have been used in current modern fire management plans, but moving forward both approaches can learn from each other.
In both cases, Traditional Owners are able to spend time on country carrying out slow burns, which fulfils their cultural obligations of looking after country. In the process they also can receive training from community fire services or recognised certificates in fire and land management. There are still new constraints on fire management, in that landholders and fire services must be notified, and fences and other infrastructure protected. Outcomes of the slow burns are typically better for ecosystems than local fire services carrying out burns, which also reduce fuel loads but tend to burn hotter as fire services are often constrained by time and resources. The result is knowledge is shared, and outcomes for the environment and communities are better.
Classroom activity - Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) Year 6
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have developed a continent-wide land management system by making fire their ally. Students will learn from two case studies in Western Australia, the Miriwoong people and Nyungar people, to learn about the role of fire in land management and how it has evolved over time.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Develop appropriate questions to guide an inquiry about people, events, developments, places, systems and challenges (ACHASSI122)
- The world’s cultural diversity, including that of its indigenous peoples (ACHASSK140)
Examine different viewpoints on actions, events, issues and phenomena in the past and present (ACHASSI127)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 6 in Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS):
- students explain the significance of an event/development, an individual and/or group
- identify and describe continuities and changes for different groups in the past and present
- compare the experiences of different people in the past
- locate and collect useful data and information from primary and secondary sources
Activity 1 – Managing fire with the seasons
Suggested timing for activity: one lesson, plus homework if appropriate
Required resources: computer, paper, notebook, pens, pencils
- Visit web pages on Nyungar and Miriwoong seasonal calendars:
- The Miriwoong Seasonal Calendar (BOM): http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/miriwoong.shtml
- The Nyungar Seasonal Calendar (BOM): http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/nyoongar.shtml
- Identify knowledge gaps to build a fire management plan:
- Make a list of information that will help you understand when burning would be a good idea and when it would be dangerous.
- Identify the driest part of the year, and the hottest. Consider rain, temperature, plant growing seasons and resulting fuel loads.
- Research answers to your questions based on your local area.
- Discuss the following inquiry-based questions as a class:
- What effects might climate change have on fire management? E.g. What might happen if rains come late, or are heavier than usual, or if it’s hotter than usual for longer?
- How has the use of fire changed over time? Consider pre-colonisation, early colonisation, and present day.
- How did traditional fire management contribute to a sustainable way of life?
Activity 2 – Human-fire-food web
Suggested timing for activity: One lesson, plus homework if appropriate
Required resources: Computer, paper, notebook, pens, pencils
- Research a familiar Australian ecosystem food web, e.g. grasslands
- Draw a food web, using arrows to show relationships between things, e.g. a line between kangaroos and grass indicates kangaroos eat the grass.
- Now include humans in this food web:
- Include traditional foods
- Include fire and how it affects plants, e.g. grasses
- Discuss the following inquiry-based questions as a class:
- What key processes are we missing if the role of humans in the web is not considered?
- Much of western thinking posits humans outside of the ‘natural’ wilderness. E.g. ‘natural’ usually means without human influence. How is Indigenous thinking different?
- Considering the information learnt in Activity 1, discuss modern fire management and how the use of fire has changed over time.
1 Pincock, S. (2013) Genes extinguish Aboriginal fire theory. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/10/30/3879452.htm
2 Pincock, S. (2013) op. cit.
3 Westaway, M., Olley, J., Grun, R. (2017) Aboriginal Australians co-existed with the megafauna for at least 17,000 years. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-australians-co-existed-with-the-megafauna-for-at-least-17-000-years-70589
4 Wilkie, B. (2015) This continent of smoke. Retrieved from: https://meanjin.com.au/blog/this-continent-of-smoke/
5 Pascoe, B. (2014) Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? P. 115.
6 Kelly, G. (n.d.) Karla Wongi Fire Talk: A Nyungar perspective on forest burning. Retrieved from: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/images/documents/fire/karla-wongi-fire-talk.pdf
7 Traditional Aboriginal Burning. (2013) Retrieved from: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/fire/fire-and-the-environment/41-traditional-aboriginal-burning
8 Bangarra Dance Theatre (2018) Dark Emu Study Guide. Page 7. Retrieved from: https://d13zn1k8jew9vh.cloudfront.net/files/FINAL_Dark%20Emu-%20Study%20Guide%202018_sml.pdf
9 Newry, D. and Olawsky, K.J. (2011) Developing the Miriwoong Seasonal Calendar. Retrieved from: http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/miriwoong.shtml
10 Teresa (2013) Miriuwung Gajerrong Fire Management success. Retrieved from: https://rangelandswa.com.au/miriuwung-gajerrong-fire-management-success/
11 Barrow, J. (2016) Nyoongar Calendar. Retrieved from: http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/nyoongar.shtml
12 Kelly, G. (n.d.) op. cit.
13 Kelly, G. (n.d.) op. cit.
14 Kelly, G. (n.d.) op. cit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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.