The Weekend Wonk: Controlling Fire with Indigenous Knowledge

January 11, 2020

If this is the way it’s going, we’re going to have to get a lot better managing fire.

We might want to talk to some experts – indigenous people the world round have been doing this for a long time, – but one might argue that the peculiarly harsh conditions in Australia might have fostered some of the most carefully studied techniques.

A quick search shows that there is quite a bit of material on Indigenous fire management on youtube. Here’s a selection.

ABC (Australia):

On a hot, dry day in March 2018, 20 separate wildfires ignited across the Bega Valley in New South Wales.

One fire that began at Reedy Swamp north of the town of Bega tore through close to 1,000 hectares before reaching the beachside township of Tathra. 

Six months on, a forest of bare, blackened trees frames the town, where more than 100 homes were destroyed or damaged.

But on a small patch of bushland on the south-western edge of Tathra, a patch of green shows where the fire came to a halt.

The land is part of 71 hectares owned by the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) at Tathra West.

The title to the land was transferred in 2016, 17 years after it was granted to the Bega LALC under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act process.

In 2017, the Bega LALC began a cultural burning program as part of the management strategy for their landholdings.

With training and support from the Far South Coast Rural Fire Service (RFS) and local RFS volunteers, the cultural burn crew prepared and burnt 3.5 hectares of land at Tathra West using methods informed by traditional knowledge.

Six months on from the 2018 wildfire, the land where cultural burns were undertaken in 2017 is sprouting with native grasses, in stark contrast to the scorched trees and dense bracken that mark the surrounding landscape.

Native grasses at the site of cultural burn

“The land is their food, their livelihood, their country, their home. 

“If they’d allowed wildfires to burn the country to a cinder, they wouldn’t have survived for so many thousands of years.”

Mr Steffensen is a Cape York man who shares his traditional knowledge with Indigenous fire crews around Australia. He first visited the Bega LALC crew in February 2018.

“Helping these young fellas to rebuild their knowledge of their country and applying fire starts to bring out their identity again.

Duncan McCue explains how the Martu people of Australia have long used controlled burns to help with hunting, a practice that also helps the environment. This story was produced with the support of the Bill Lane Centre for American West.

From CSIRO –


Traditional ecological knowledge is being used in powerful combination with Western science to enhance the biodiversity and cultural values of wetlands in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. As part of the northern Australian Burning for Biodiversity project, we are working with the Bushfire CRC and a family of traditional owners in Kakadu National Park to examine the biodiversity and cultural benefits of Aboriginal fire management as it is re-applied to floodplains associated with the South Alligator River.

9 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Controlling Fire with Indigenous Knowledge”

  1. cicely berglund Says:

    The Biggest Estate on Earth. – by Bill Gammage is a lengthy and detailed account of controlled burning by Australian Aborigines plus an account of transcontinental intercommunication and reproductions of 18th and 19th century watercolour paintings of Australian landscapes before the Europeans had much opportunity to halt that culture. Admirable publication.

  2. redskylite Says:

    We are now in catch up mode – yet persistent rising temperatures and corresponding rise in CO2 density should indicate we need to accelerate and get in front of the beast. This should be the big kick we need.

    “We are walking blindly into the new climate reality. We’ve moved beyond hope, and we can’t be running on hope alone.

    “The only thing that is going to get us over the line is action. And the antidote to despair is action.

    “Central Australian Aboriginal people are very resilient. They have evolved to cope with the harsh and variable desert climate, but there are limits.

    “Without action to stop climate change, people will be forced to leave their country and leave behind much of what makes them Aboriginal. Climate change is a clear and present threat to the survival of our people and their culture.”

    Across central Australia, people are bracing themselves for another scorching summer of drought.

    At least nine remote communities and outstations are running out of water. A further 12 have reported poor quality drinking water as aquifers run low and the remaining supply is saline.

    Temperature records have already been broken. In the year to July 2019, Alice Springs had 129 days over 35C, and 55 days over 40C.

    It wasn’t meant to be like this – at least, not yet. The national science agency, the CSIRO, predictedthat these temperatures would not arrive until 2030.

  3. Bryan Ackerly Says:

    To reiterate a comment I posted elsewhere:

    “if you had actually listened to the program that Dr Karl presented you will have heard him saying that this [indigenous fire management in Australia] wouldn’t work because all the knowledge of this has been lost. And even if it hadn’t been, the whole landscape has changed (quite literally if you think about it) so these initiatives probably wouldn’t work anymore anyway!”

    • Paul Whyte Says:

      The landscape that the indigenous people of Australia managed had a long series of lakes stretching from one side of the country to the other and was forested in much larger part without the warming signal from Global Warming.

      Indigenous people have made it clear that the central desert under business, as usual, is not liveable for humans!

      The warming signal from the tendency to have a more neutral El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a higher Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the westerlies increasing due to changes in Antarctica and the Sudden Stratospheric Warming SSW caused by the wobble in the polar vortex from uneven Antarctic sea ice sending warmer air skywards has been a perfect storm. The worse possible warming and heating event.

      It lets us see Australia’s future under business as usual. The indigenous people do need to have their land and their place restored but a hopeless challenge is rather cruel and misses the main point.

      The real need is to take the lead from science and do all of the steps needed to shut down fossil fuel use in a prompt and ordered way. We can see how Austalia and the rest of the planet will turn out from 2019!

  4. In Victoria (Australia) indigenous knowledge is incorporated into fire management practices along with science and other local knowledge. Fire practices learned from Aboriginal people are not a magic bullet though. Neither is science or local knowledge. Put them all together in a complementary way and they help.

    Before Europeans arrived, various Aboriginal communities would have changed the flora and fauna by using fire (just as we are now, but probably more slowly). Over time ecosystems in many parts would have stabilised, but are different again now.

    It probably doesn’t need to be said that different ecosystems need different management. A rainforest might only benefit from a burn every 1000 or even 10000 years or never (depending which forest). A dry sclerophyll forest might benefit from a burn every 10 years, or a part burn (low temperature – not a tree-killing burn).

    Whatever happens, the ecosystem will be affected by the burn. Some will change if burns are too infrequent, others if the burns are too hot or too frequent. An ecosystem could also be harmed or destroyed if the burn is done too vigorously at the wrong time of the year (e.g. a spring burn could kill a new generation of spring-bearing birds and animals, harm flowering plants etc).

    Now with hotter summer, spring and autumn, the risks of any burn are increasing. Ecosystem and hazard reduction burns are seen as an important part of forest management but they won’t stop runaway fires. If fire conditions are bad enough, fires will burn whether there’ve been recent prior burns or not.

  5. Sir Charles Says:

    Meanwhile, public support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison has slumped to its lowest levels—standing at 37 percent—amid widespread anger over his government’s handling of Australia’s bushfire crisis, according to a survey released by Newspoll on Monday.

    => Australian prime minister’s approval rating goes up in flames

  6. redskylite Says:

    I have just read a very sinister article from Roger Pielke in Forbes entitled “The Inconvenient Facts On Australian Bushfires”, which jumps on the denial bandwagon and denounces Michael Mann’s plea from Australia and the coupling of the unprecedented fires to a main reason of climate change.

    So explain why a group trees of a species which have existed for at least 100 million years, located in an undisclosed location , needed saving by human firefighters.
    Incredible, secret firefighting mission saves famous ‘dinosaur trees’

    While most of the Wollemi National Park has been burnt by the huge Gospers Mountain fire north-west of Sydney, specialist remote-area fire crews managed to ensure the so-called “dinosaur trees” survived.

    “Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” Mr Kean said.

    The National Parks and Wildlife Service, backed by the Rural Fire Service, kept their efforts largely a secret to avoid revealing the location of the Wollemi pines.

    • Abel Adamski Says:

      We also lost a large swathe of even more ancient Gondwana plants (Pre trees) in an even more ancient wetland in Tasmania that had dried out in an unprecedented drought for Tasmania, just a few years ago.

      It can be argued that it is the Aborigines and their “land management” practices that has shaped the fire dependent flora of Australia over the 70,000+ years they have inhabited the continent with their firestick hunting practices as hunter gatherers, that precluded settlements and the key to civilization, pottery (storing grains etc and oils, water and food, as well as cooking and eating utensils) and the resultant kilns which led to smelting metals and the wheel

      Incidentally there is an excellent documentary covering how the Australian aborigine’s were the first inhabitants of America 50,000 years ago during the ice age, when the Siberians migrated down in several waves they killed most off and the survivors migrated south with the last remnants being in Tierra Del Fuega with some local customs being the ancestral Australian customs and secret teachings

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