Since it began in September, Australia’s unprecedented catastrophic bushfire crisis has led to over 10 million hectares of land being burned, millions of animals dying, thousands evacuating from their homes and almost 30 people losing their lives.
Though local fire services’ hazard reduction tools and back-burning continue to be discussed as strategies, traditional fire practices used by Aboriginal people before Australia was colonised by the British in 1788 have been gaining more attention.
Indigenous fire practitioner Oliver Costello told HuffPost Australia that “there has never been a more important time than now to support us practising our knowledge and practice”.
The founder of Firesticks Alliance – an organisation that specialises in Aboriginal cultural burning – said the practice that dates back more than 80,000 years involves an examination and understanding of the entire ecosystem, which he said modern practices don’t necessarily consider.
What Is Cultural Burning
Cultural burning involves burning “trickling fires” in circles or mosaics across patches of land during cooler periods that typically start in March and April but can vary depending on the landscape. Its aim is to reduce fuel while also protecting plants and animals.
Costello said the cultural knowledge and skills used before lighting the fire are what make the practice unique and successful.
“When we apply the fire, we read the country and we look at the values,” he said. “So all of the plants and animals have their own identity and relationships to each other. Some of them have quite positive relationships with fire, some have quite negative relationships with fire.
“If you burn the wrong way, it destroys a lot of the kinship and culture.”
Cultural Burning In Practice
Australian National University Professor Bill Gammage has extensively researched traditional fire practices and said he’s “absolutely sure” these methods would help minimise the risk of bushfire crises like the one Australia is experiencing now.
“Where white fellas are in charge, we have terrible fires, and where black fellas are in charge, we don’t,” the author of “The Biggest Estate: How Aborigines Managed The Land” told HuffPost Australia.
“We can see up in northern Australia where Aboriginal people are still in charge, they start burning when the ground is still damp and the grass is a little bit green,” he said. “You only get little patches. That way they become mini fire breaks, and then as the country grows out, they burn more and more, and the burnt area just spreads. The result is they don’t have the big fires that we do.”
The Yugul Mangi Rangers are Indigenous land management experts who work alongside traditional owners living in Numbulwar, Bulman, Ramingining and Maningrida in the Northern Territory to undertake cultural burning.
The Wagiman Rangers work closely with the Northern Council and undertake land management activities throughout the Wagiman Aboriginal Land Trust, which covers 130,000 hectares across the Northern Territory.
“We haven’t learnt that skill yet,” said Gammage. “Very early on, white settlers in southern Australia tried to copy Aboriginal burning. They could see it was an advantage, but they just didn’t have the skill to do it properly. So we’ve lost those skills and, as a consequence, we get worse and worse fires.”
Those like Costello who do have the skills want to engage land management agencies, share their knowledge and be given the opportunity to practice their fire traditions. Since the escalation of the 2019/2020 bushfire crisis, Tasmania has enlisted the assistance of Aboriginal fire practice experts.
On Monday, the Tasmanian government announced a $100,000 pilot grant program allowing the state’s Aboriginal communities to conduct cultural burning in local areas.
Three new specialist Aboriginal positions were also created within the Parks and Wildlife Service to “further strengthen our understanding of and practice in land management and cultural burning methods, and the impact of fire on Aboriginal heritage”.
“As our nation suffers from devastating bushfires, we should draw on the deep connection Tasmanian Aboriginals have with the land and share this knowledge in improved land management practices, to help reduce the impact of wildfires in our community,” outgoing Premier Will Hodgman said in a statement.
“The Government will also invite Aboriginal representation on the Statewide Fuel Reduction Steering Committee, to provide expert advice on fire management practices and to further assist agencies to learn from and utilise traditional management techniques.”
In New South Wales, the NSW Rural Fire Service has created two all-Indigenous firefighting crews. Eight men from far western NSW have formed Indigenous Mitigation Crews. Though their current roles mostly entail “building trust with the community”, the recruits “will be tasked with performing cultural burns” in the future, reports ABC.
“The First Nations people need to be acknowledged and respected, and we need to be supported to practice our culture,” said Costello. “For me, it’s been 10 or 15 years saying, ‘We need jobs, but not working for the government, but working for our own communities’.”
Gammage agreed, saying, “I certainly think the key thing is that at a local level, Aboriginal people should be involved.
“I say local level because the country changes. How you’d control a fire in Tasmania is very different from how you’d control it in the Kimberley. You’ve got to have that local expertise so you know the best time to burn, how often and what places and so on. Local governments should be supported to get Aboriginal help at that local level.”
How Cultural Burning Differs From Hazard Reduction Methods And Back-Burning
Ken Thompson, former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire & Rescue, said climate change, a factor in this intense bushfire season, could justify the adoption of traditional burning as part of the fire services’ process.
“These fires, no matter where you look, are becoming far more intense, they’re burning for much longer, there are more of them and they’re becoming much more destructive,” Thompson explained.
“Hazard reduction or prescribed burning is an effective tool within the whole hazard reduction tool kit, but it’s got its limitations. What the limitations are is the weather conditions have to be right before they can be done.
“Traditionally, those conditions would be outside our fire season during the cooler months, during the winter months. But now that our fire season is longer, that period, or window of opportunity, is smaller. To make things even more complicated within that smaller window of opportunity, the weather conditions still have to be right. So if it’s too hot, if the humidity is too low, if the winds are too strong or if there’s rain, then basically they can’t be done.”
Cultural burning, on the other hand, welcomes rainy conditions to some extent, and though the climate is changing, the practices can be adapted to today’s landscapes.
“You often hear even quite good firies say you can’t burn when it’s wet. But with a little bit of rain, that’s ideally when you start burning because the fires won’t get very big. You can easily put it out,” said Professor Gammage. “And Aboriginal people would do that.”
Costello said he’s heard agencies say that Indigenous early burns in March and April are not “effective or useful”, “don’t reduce the fuel” or aren’t “a good hazard reduction burn”.
“But that’s our first burns,” he explained. “We get out there when it’s still quite damp and start to burn in the right areas and country types.
“There’s a lot of seasonal variation that relies heavily on moisture and the curing of the grasses. You’ve just got to read the country and then, even through summer, if we’ve done all our early burning, we can burn later into the seasons. But when you start getting into spring, you start getting issues with birds nesting and animals mating, nurturing the young and all of that stuff, so you’ve got to be super careful. That’s why a lot of the hazard reduction burning they’re [fire services] doing in spring is quite dangerous because they’re not doing the proper burning.
“A lot of the hazard reduction ... burning they’re doing, we don’t want them to do it. We want them to stop doing it.”
Thompson said he believed traditional burning was “another tool that can perhaps be added to the [hazard reduction] tool kit”, though he suggested more research could be beneficial, adding that his “only concern is how it would be carried out on such a large scale”.
Meanwhile, back-burning is a tool used during the firefighting process.
“To try and get ahead of a fire, they’ll light a fire to burn out the fuel between where they are and where the fire is,” explained Thompson.
“That’s a pretty effective tool, but it’s risky because you’re lighting another fire in the middle of what is already an extreme or even catastrophic fire situation,” he continued, explaining that strong winds and dry conditions can lead to the flames getting out of control.
Can Cultural Burning Work Amid Climate Change?
Neil Morris has worked in Indigenous land management for several years. He considers traditional practice “one of the answers” in tackling the fire crisis.
“Climate change has created another sweep of issues that we simply can’t fully counteract,” he said, adding, however, that “we can counteract as best as possible”.
“There’s been evidence from Indigenous fire practitioners with parts of country they’ve done their cool burns on over multiple years. Even as little as two years of cool burns over the same site has meant that when these fires have come through, this time that fire went around those parts of country, and that’s just after two years of Indigenous burning practices.”
Though Costello acknowledged the recent “fire and extreme conditions” could affect traditional practice, he said the communities “can adapt to that impact”.
“The climate’s always changing, and it always has changed, so our knowledge systems are designed to adapt to change.… This is not the first time that the continent has gone through a dry process.
“Eighty thousands years or more of cultural fire management practices has seen sea levels rise and fall, landscapes change, species change. There’s a whole heap of change that’s happened, and people have just adapted.
“We can say this is how we’re going to burn today, but 200 years ago we probably would have burned differently, and 2,000 years ago, we probably would have burned differently. There’s slight adaptations in our practice because we’re reading the country. We’re responding to the land, and the land and environment is changing.”
Professor Marcia Langton AM, who holds the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, agreed, saying, “It’s time to bring Indigenous knowledge of environment to the fore”.
“This is an opportunity to get Australia to start thinking about how Aboriginal peoples’ ancestors managed to live here for 65,000 years and sustain quite remarkable societies. It’s because of our continent-wide land management system. That’s why,” she told HuffPost Australia.
“You’ll notice that fire chiefs are saying, ‘We couldn’t do fuel reduction because the window of opportunity closed off because of the drought’. This is what Aboriginal people who practice traditional fire management do know about – how to work with the conditions in which we have this problem of radical, radical differences in our environment as a result of climate change.”