Traditional fire management

“If you look after Country, Country will look after you.” 

First Nations communities have been looking after Country for over 80,000 years through complex land management practices. These practices have allowed Country to support thriving populations across diverse environments for generations. 

Traditional fire management has been used for over a thousand generations to domesticate plants and promote their growth, influence animal movement across Country, and prevent uncontrolled wildfires. Due to colonisation and the removal of First Nations people from traditional lands, these practices have decreased over time. Now we face unprecedented wildfires that destroy important ecosystems, threaten lives and devastate communities across Australia. 

"Many communities haven't been able to practise their cultural fire because of the impacts of colonisation, restrictions on access to land and prohibition, because burning is seen as a threat or something that will damage other people's interests." Oliver Costello, Coordinator of Firesticks.

Over the last three decades and with the introduction of Native Title, First Nations communities have continually stated that western fire prevention methods have not been working well. In some areas there has been a locally-driven resurgence of traditional fire management practices. Particularly in Northern Australia and some communities in Southern and Eastern regions. First Nations fire management systems provide many of the answers to living harmoniously with Country and ensuring it can prosper, but this knowledge is not part of mainstream conversations around land management.  

How does traditional fire management work? 

First Nations fire management uses a deep understanding of Country to identify specific locations in an appropriate area and lighting small, controlled fires.  It has to be done in the right conditions including the right season, humidity, temperature and wind.

To undertake traditional fire burning, First Nations people must first learn to read the local trees and plants, understand soil types, topography and weather conditions. Careful consideration is also given to the animals living in the area, and how they will move and survive during the controlled fires. This knowledge requires a strong relationship with Country and the landscape. 

Traditional fire burning methods assess specific fuels and remove those that would drive larger fires during summer (in Southern and Eastern Australia), or during the late dry season (in Northern Australia).

These fires burn slowly and are controlled so the temperature of the flame does not exceed what the landscape can tolerate.  Some areas are burnt thoroughly, some just singed, and others are left to grow. This leaves patches of Country that are burnt to regenerate over the coming season, while other patches continue to provide strong ecosystems for local fauna and food production.

This method ensures that there are always living areas in the local ecosystem, and some that are in a stage of regeneration. But a single ecosystem is never completely damaged.

Before colonisation people would walk across Country, hunting or undertaking ceremony and lighting fires where appropriate. Fire management was a part of every day living and the activities commonly done by people going about their lives. In Northern Australia, these practices are done during the dry season between March and July. 

“Burning will depend on where [it is] on our land. Some areas should burn and others left unburnt. Some areas need smoke.” - Shane Ivey, Ngulingah.

Fire Management systems for the future 

First Nations fire burning knowledge is living cultural knowledge. Traditional fire practices are based on connection to Country and local knowledge of the region. But this knowledge can be adapted, taught and used across Australia. However, the sharing and implementation of this knowledge is made more difficult by the historical and continued displacement and removal of First Nations people from Country for over 200 years.  

The restoration of traditional land management practices can provide opportunities for communities to reclaim cultural knowledge and healing on Country. 

“Aboriginal people’s living knowledge systems can help support contemporary fire management concerns facing our society and environment.” - Oliver Costello, Firesticks Coordinator.

"So many changes have occurred since 1975… But we can take that knowledge and we can adapt it to suit our times… The key message is that we can take the idea of humans using fire skilfully — we can manipulate vegetation, we can reduce fuel loads, we can sharpen fire boundaries.” - University of Tasmania professor of fire science David Bowman via ABC.

With the increase of uncontrolled wildfires across Australia, there is more interest in how traditional knowledge can be used to preserve and cultivate Country. The issue of fire and land management provides an important opportunity to centre First Nations knowledge systems within the wider Australian consciousness. It is just one example of how respecting and accepting First Nations knowledge can benefit all people, the land, and way we live. 


Top image: © Mimal Land Management Aboriginal Corporation.
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We acknowledge all First Peoples of this land and celebrate their enduring connections to Country, knowledge and stories. We pay our respects to Elders and Ancestors who watch over us and guide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

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