Aboriginal burning: how much, how often?

A CSIRO fire management report on Aboriginal burning in the Great Western Woodlands of south western WA has revealed some interesting facts about traditional approaches to fire in the woodlands.

The report was written to document the Ngadju people’s knowledge of fire. Its key findings include:

·‘The extensive old growth woodlands were rarely burnt deliberately, because they take hundreds of years to recover.

·‘The extensive sandplain shrublands were only occasionally burnt with planned fire. Mostly they burnt naturally by wildfires that were allowed to take their course.

·‘Rather, Ngadju used fire as a cultural tool for keeping the country clear around rockholes, for encouraging grasses in open grasslands and mallee, and to smoke out animals when hunting. These fires were often small, around 1 ha.

·‘They also used fire to protect important cultural sites and special plants such as water trees; and to maintain access along walking tracks and in coastal shrublands.

·‘Other activities such as firewood collecting around the edges of woodlands and rockholes, and sweeping and scraping up litter around individual trees, were undertaken to help control wildfire.

·‘Ultimately these activities would have led to a fine-scale fire mosaic over the top of the natural vegetation mosaic.’

This summary of the findings is taken from John Morgan’s Plant Ecology Blog. Morgan comments, ‘As a land management tool, fire obviously has a more select role in Ngadju country than in other regions of Australia such as the tropical savannah and spinifex country where large parts of the landscape are frequently burnt.’

The moral of this story, from our point of view, is that different country requires different treatment. This is a common sense idea, the antithesis of the Victorian policy of burning five per cent of public land, irrespective of its ecological needs. The five per cent target never had credibility ecologically. Its effectiveness as a public safety measure has been questioned by the Royal Commission Implementation Monitor. Now, in the wake of large grass fires this summer, the Fire Services Commissioner, Craig Lapsley, has stated that a move away from the crude target is ‘most certainly being considered.’

The CSIRO report can be found here

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1 Response to Aboriginal burning: how much, how often?

  1. John Ross says:

    Aboriginal use of fire is a complex subject and you are dead right to recognise that fire was used very differently in different landscapes. The notion of ‘fire-stick farming’, coined by Rhys Jones and popularised by Tim Flannery, does not have universal application, however this half-baked theory has been extrapolated to country where it was never used. Google ‘Phil Zylstra’, who has studied this topic extensively, and read everything you can find by him.

    Aboriginal culture has been co-opted by organisations such as the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association to support their political goals, with no regard for the truth. Zysltra’s work shows that fire frequency in the high country increased after white settlement.

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