Fire

Aboriginal fire management is a body of ancient traditional practices and knowledge about natural systems that are still practised today in some parts of Australia.

For tens-of-thousands of years before European colonisation, Aboriginal groups performed cool and controlled burns that limited the incidence and severity of wildfires across the Australian continent. Scholars from a range of disciplines concerned with Australia’s environment, including historians, fire ecologists and botanists, have shown how Australian landscapes were shaped by Aboriginal fire practices. Stephen J. Pyne[1] and Bill Gammage[2] (2011) are among those to have shown how prior to both colonisation and urbanisation, Aboriginal peoples had used fire to promote and distribute plant communities (such as grass or open forest) and sought to distribute trees and plants to promote and protect animals, birds, reptiles and insects.

Whereas European settlers deemed the continent a wild and unfamiliar environment, what they encountered was in fact a landscape that had been very consciously and deliberately shaped by fire for millennia in a continent-wide economic and social strategy to support human life and protect fauna and flora species. One ubiquitous feature of human beings’ monopoly over fire has been its social, religious and ceremonial functions. Songs, ceremonies, sacred narratives and stories in Aboriginal languages about fire are used to teach important cultural concepts and practices while traditional seasonal calendars are essential tools in Aboriginal fire management that convey information about weather, wind, dew, precipitation and humidity, and ecological indicators of seasonal change to inform practices that regulate variability and intensity of fires. By burning patches of vegetation in a ‘mosaic’ pattern, achieved with the use of seasonal burning and maintaining a low fuel density in the understories of forests, Aboriginal people regulated the frequency and intensity of burns.

Aboriginal people continue to use their traditional and adapted fire management practices and knowledge.  From researchers in fields such as the environmental sciences and history, we know that among its advantages, Aboriginal landscape fire gave every species a favourable habitat, letting them flourish, and averting species extinctions. We now know, for instance, that Aboriginal peoples deployed fire to promote drought-shielding native grasses and shrubs, and to minimise the impact of bushfire (or, wildfire) by reducing fuel, and by creating fire breaks to break up or isolate areas with dangerous fuel loads.

Aboriginal people made fire an ally, a dangerous ally, yet not an enemy. By using fire to fight fire, Aboriginal people managed the wildfire-prone Australian landscapes.

Today, Aboriginal fire practice is no longer possible in many areas of Australia because of the broader patterns of urbanisation, and demographic change. Scientists debate whether these practices can be replicated to control the fierce wildfires that affect current Australian landscapes, and conduct experiments to understand ecological complexity and variation in species response in different communities.

[1] Pyne (1991), Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, Henry Holt and Company.

[2] Gammage (2011), The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.