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 land management practices that have allowed Country to support thriving populations for generations. 

Traditional fire management has been used for over a thousand generations as a mechanism to promote growth in flora, 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  receded during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Now we face the emergence of large 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 speaking to The Australian Financial Review

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 areas across Australia there has been a locally-driven resurgence of traditional fire management practices, in particular across northern Australia and some communities in southern and eastern regions. While First Nations fire management systems provide many of the answers to working alongside country and ensuring it can prosper, this knowledge is not part of mainstream conversations around land management. 

How does traditional fire management work? 

First Nations fire management involves using a deep understanding of Country to identify specific locations in an appropriate area, and lighting small controlled fires - also called cool fires.  This must be done in optimal 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 survive and move during the fires. This knowledge both requires and contributes to an incredibly 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, Eastern and Western Australia), or during the late dry season (in Northern Australia).

These fires burn slowly, and are controlled in a manner that ensures the temperature of the flame does not exceed what the landscape can tolerate.  Some areas will be burnt, while 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. 

Before colonisation, people would walk through Country while hunting or undertaking ceremony and light fires where appropriate. In this way, fire management was  interlinked with all aspects of living and the activities commonly done by people going about their lives. In Northern Australia, these fires would be undertaken 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. Firesticks Coastal Cultural Values Workshop, Aug 2013.

Fire Management Systems for the Future 

First Nations fire burning knowledge is living cultural knowledge. While traditional fire practices are based on connection to Country and local knowledge of the region, 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.

Before colonisation, First Nations communities were constantly walking country, and could continually and closely control the spread of back burning. Traditionally, people would drag a fire stick through the bush, burning strategic patterns of strips and spirals to achieve burnt areas of Country. 

"So many changes have occurred since 1975 … but we can take that knowledge and we can adapt it to suit our times,"  says University of Tasmania professor of fire science David Bowman via ABC
"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.” - David Bowman 

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  First Nations knowledge can benefit all people, the land and way in which we live. 

Top image: (c) Mimal Land Management Aboriginal Corporation

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