How Indigenous traditional fire practice can save Australian land, and why it has to be practiced by Indigenous people

By Alice Damiano and Dan Morgan[i]

While late 2019 and the year 2020 will probably be remembered for the covid-19 pandemic, the world should not forget about another disaster: The bushfires in Australia, that this year were unusually intense and out of control. What let them be so terribly out of control in the first place?

Indigenous Australian culture has a likely answer: Two hundred years of colonization, of Westernization, of interdiction of the practice of Indigenous culture. Two hundred years that led to a progressive disconnection from the land.

As it is well-known, Indigenous Australian culture includes management of the land with traditional fire practice. What is not widely known, however, is how much more complex this practice is than hazard-reduction burning or prescribed burning, which is a probable reason why hazard-reduction burning was not as effective as we hoped (Morton 2020[ii]), works only sometimes (Kinsella and Jackson 2020[iii], Price et al. 2015[iv]), is considered scientifically controversial (Tolhurst 2020[v]), and our scientific knowledge of it is partial (Boer et al. 2009[vi]).

According to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) website[vii], the Hazard Reduction Program consists in “planned hazard reduction activities like mowing and controlled burning to assist in the protection of life, property and the community”, and hazard-reduction burns occur in “a predetermined area under specific fuel and weather conditions to attain planned fuel management outcomes”. Moreover, NPWS hazard-reduction burnings are done by hectare and to reach a certain quota of burnt hectares, upon which their funding depends[viii].

Also, according to the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment website[ix], “Each hazard reduction burn is the result of careful planning, consultation and monitoring, as well as a rigorous approval process”.

Indigenous traditional burning is different. There are no quotas to meet, no “predetermined” areas. In other words, no top-down planning, no large-scale designs, no decisions made from afar, no plans made too much in advance, no economic logics.

What there is, instead, is the knowledge of the different country types, that are defined not by lines on a map, but by the observation made in person of the area, and of the signs—e.g., the presence of a flower, the behaviour of an animal—that tell us whether or not it is the right moment to burn. In the same acre there can be different country types requiring burning at different times. This is too much detail for a drawing on a map: The person practicing the burning has to be there, tell the country types apart, check the signs, and light a fire only in the right spots. And these fires usually need to be cool and somewhat delicate, so that they let the soil keep its moisture, as opposed to the hot, somewhat coarse, hazard-reduction fires that dry the soil too much, at the risk of making it more prone to bushfires.

In the end, it is not a matter of meeting quotas of burned hectares or, as Kinsella and Jackson (2020)[x] wonder concerning hazard-reduction burning, “doing enough of it”: It is a matter of doing it appropriately. Quality, not quantity.

Three different country types present in the same area of the Mimosa Rocks National Park, New South Wales (Australia): Sand dune country (figure 1), Sand dune ridge country (figure 2), and Full gum country (figure 3).

Sand dune country

Figure 1: Sand dune country

Sand dune ridge country

Figure 2: Sand dune ridge country.

Full gum country

Figure 3: Full gum country

As an act of respect towards the Indigenous community who owns the knowledge about these and other country types, no more information about them will be shared here.

Photos by Alice Damiano.

Reaching this quality does not come without effort, and the effort required in this case does not consist in studying books, passing exams, or combining data collected through technological instruments. The effort needed to do Indigenous traditional burning in the right way requires the ability to read the land and its signs, an ability that comes from a connection to the land. Indigenous land burning is like a conversation with the land, in which the land signals what needs to be burnt, how, and when, and the cultural fire practitioner reads the signs and does as required. Indigenous Australian people walk with fire, because fire is not an enemy to appease with prescribed burning, but a companion in this relationship with the land. And this relationship needs little healings—the right fire in the right country—and not big shocks—hot fires in large areas, that replace a variety of country types with one homogeneous country that favours hot fire and that, sadly, are the way in which hazard-reduction burning is usually performed. Indeed, Indigenous traditional burning has not been developed over millennia to protect individual properties, but to keep healthy the land and the variety of living beings who dwell on it, at the collective level.

So, why are we having bushfires out of control? Because colonization has prevented this connection with the land from continuing, by prohibiting traditional land management, forbidding the exercise and transmission of Indigenous culture, and Westernizing Indigenous people. And while scientists are trying to develop new methods of hazard-reduction burning and testing their validity, Indigenous cultural fire practitioners are reestablishing and strengthening their connection with the land, and calling for the recognition of their right to practice traditional burning methods that have been developed, tested and proven successful over millennia.

However, it is not only important to guarantee their right to practice traditional burning, but also to recognize the validity of this practice and this knowledge, and the need for traditional burning to be under Indigenous Australians’ control.

There are at least three reasons to do so.

First, Indigenous land burning is not based on a set of rules, but on communication with the land that can exist thanks to Indigenous people’s connection with it. Even if Indigenous Australians wrote a handbook detailing these practices, the reader of this handbook would not be able to implement them correctly, because they would not be able to read the changing signals sent by the land.

Second, Indigenous Australians have high rates of unemployment (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare[xi], Parliament of Australia[xii]), poverty (Parliament of Australia[xiii]), and incarceration (Korff, 2020[xiv]). This was caused by colonization, and by the imposed disconnection from the land, which deprived Indigenous people of a purpose. Recognizing Indigenous people’s right to manage land burning would create jobs, and it would give these jobs to those who would carry them out in the best way. It would be an act of justice, after countless acts of injustice brought by colonization.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Indigenous knowledge belongs to Indigenous people, they have the right to decide whether to share it or not, and to what extent, and this must be respected. Considering that their land has been appropriated, part of their knowledge has been appropriated, and their connection with the land has been disrupted by settlers, they certainly cannot be blamed for wanting to have control over their knowledge, instead of leaving it at the mercy of the methods of Western culture.

Endnotes

[i] This article includes content about Indigenous land management. This knowledge was provided by the Djiringanj Yuin cultural fire practitioner Dan Morgan. Part of this knowledge has already been shared in other sources, such as Bowra, M 2020, A burning question, viewed 25 July 2020 https://www.acf.org.au/burning_question; Brown, B 2020,  Indigenous communities call for ongoing funding of cultural burning for bushfire mitigation, viewed 25 July 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-30/Indigenous-cultural-burning-funding-for-bushfire-mitigation/11910464; Keller, C 2020, ‘Cultural burning at the South Coast of NSW: An interview with Dan Morgan’, Native Title Newsletter, issue 1, pp. 9-11; Bowra, M 2020, ‘A burning question’, Habitat – Australian Conservation Foundation, vol 48, no.1, pp. 24-28; abc730,  After the horrific summer of #bushfires, there was a surge of interest in cultural burning, the way #Indigenous Australians managed the land with fire for tens of thousands of years. #abc730

@JamesEltonPym, viewed 23 September 2020, https://twitter.com/abc730/status/1291237566394425349>.

The content of this article reflects the authors’ views, and does not necessarily represent the institutions they are or have been affiliated with.

The authors thank Tim Diwlorth for the feedback provided.

[ii] Morton, A 2020, ‘Hazard reduction burning had little to no effect in slowing extreme bushfires’, The Guardian, 6 February 2020.

[iii] Kinsella, E & Jackson W 2020, ‘What are hazard reduction burns, are we doing enough of them, and could they have stopped Australia’s catastrophic bushfires?’, Abc News, 10 January 2020.

[iv] Price, OF, Penman, TD, Bradstock, RA, Boer, MM & Clarke, H 2015, ‘Biogeographical variation in the potential effectiveness of prescribed fire in south‐eastern Australia’, Journal of Biogeography, vol. 42, no.11, pp.2234-2245.

[v] Tolhurst, K 2020, ‘The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested’, The Conversation, 20 February 2020.

[vi] Boer MM, Sadler RJ, Wittkuhn RS, McCaw L, Grierson PF. 2009, ‘Long-term impacts of prescribed burning on regional extent and incidence of wildfires—evidence from 50 years of active fire management in SW Australian forests.’, Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 259, no.1, pp. 132-142.

[vii] NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service website, viewed 25 July 2020, https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/conservation-programs/hazard-reduction-program.

[viii] This information is based on Dan Morgan’s 18 years of work experience with NPWS.

[ix] NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment website, viewed July 25 2020, https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/parks-reserves-and-protected-areas/fire/managing-fire/hazard-reduction.

[x] Kinsella, E & Jackson W 2020, ‘What are hazard reduction burns, are we doing enough of them, and could they have stopped Australia’s catastrophic bushfires?’, Abc News, 10 January 2020.

[xi] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Indigenous employment, viewed August 12 2020, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-employment.

[xii] Parliament of Australia, Chapter 13 – Indigenous Australians, viewed August 12 2020, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2002-04/poverty/report/c13.

[xiii] Parliament of Australia, Chapter 13 – Indigenous Australians, viewed August 12 2020, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2002-04/poverty/report/c13.

[xiv] Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal Prison Rates, viewed August 12 2020, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/law/aboriginal-prison-rates.