Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been living peaceably, and sustainably, with their fire-prone environment for 65,000 years, and so the nation at large—particularly the urban areas and the south, where fewer Indigenous people live—has much to learn from them about how to survive the bushfires of the 21st century.
“Many of those commenting on the current bushfire crisis in Australia argue about fuel reduction, hazard reduction, use of aerial incendiaries, drip torches, ancient Indigenous techniques, and western forms of fire management,” writes Joe Morrison, an Indigenous business owner with 45 years’ experience helping Australia’s First Peoples with economic development, in a recent opinion piece for The Guardian. Now, “it’s time to ask us how it’s done.”
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Fire “is, and always has been [for Australia’s First Peoples], part of the interwoven matrix of the relationships between people and the physical and spiritual world,” Morrison explains, in a post that describes how local weather conditions and plant and animal life cycles, not calendar dates, determine when, not if, small restorative fires should be lit. In western Arnhem Land, for example, “dryer cool air, combined with morning fog and flowering of the Woolybutt (Eucalyptus miniata), signal Yekke season.” That season is “the time to light small ‘cool’ fires to create a mosaic throughout the landscape that breaks up the country, reducing large, hot fires later in the year.”
Noting that the “bush” in Australia is frequently impenetrable, Morrison states that such burning “allows people to walk through country,” and that this walking, which “involves a spiritual element, as well as physical and mental,” is central to “a worldview where the land and sea and everything within it are to be respected and cared for.”
What is urgently needed, and what such “walkabouts” would help to inculcate, he says, is the understanding that “an unburnt country is not ‘wilderness’ and how country should be—but country desperately calling for fire to rejuvenate it and restore the balance of risks.” That means “not uncontrolled, damaging fires,” such as those that began devastating large parts of the country’s southeast in December, he adds, “but fires that are understood, planned, patchy, and regular.”
Urging non-Indigenous Australians to understand that “we have to live with our environment, not against it,” Morrison describes a “profound opportunity” to learn from Indigenous knowledge that has been 65 millennia in the making, and for Indigenous Australians to benefit economically and socially from their role as 21st-century teachers and guardians.
“Savanna burning, local capacity, authority and control—hard-earned lessons from the north can provide immense opportunity in the south, aligning policy with employment and enterprise to bring benefit to Indigenous, local, and regional communities, and shift the way lands are used and the economy works,” he writes.
While Indigenous people comprise just 3% of the population of Australia, Morrison adds, they possess “unmatched and untapped capital to bring to any future discussions and actions relating to the future of living in Australia.” He asks, rhetorically: “Is yearly burning so incomprehensible?”
Morrison concludes that “the time for action is now,” since “we simply cannot let our kids’ future go up in smoke.”
Yes, indigenous fire farming has it’s place in reducing fire risk, as a tool for reducing fuel load while still supporting wildlife diversity. But it cannot be applied uniformly across all Australian ecosystems. Many of the forest ecosystems are naturally wet at ground level with tree ferns and leaf litter providing a host of habitat for wildlife. Fires in these ecosystems are very rare.
Increased temperatures driven by climate change and prolonged drought have made these rainforest ecosystems more receptive to fire.
And in Australia most remote fires are started by thunderstorm generated lightning.
Logging of native forests has also increased the fire severity risk, with the level of detrius left after logging providing abundant fuel, and regrowth increasing fire risk and flammability for up to 40 years or more.
See this blog from 2011:
Hazard reduction burning (cool burning) is undertaken in most jurisdictions, usually on a risk management basis to protect human assets, but the period available to do this safely is shrinking as the fire season lengthens with global heating. It doesn’t help when governments, such as New South Wales, cut back on National Park employees thereby reducing resources to undertake hazard reduction burns in National Parks. There are substantial risks that need to be balanced with Hazard reduction, including risk of fires at times escaping control and causing major property loss or loss of life, bushfire pollution impacting health of residents. The scientific evidence clearly shows fuel reduction does little to stop extreme fires.
Most of the bushfires in Australia this season were so extreme that hazard reduction did little to prevent them. They were crown fires driven by extreme fire weather conditions (High temperatures, extreme low humidity, high winds) (climate change is making Australian fire weather conditions worse – long term trend see change in Forest Fire Danger Index time series) on top of climate induced drought conditions.