Indigenous people’s deep knowledge of the bush and their use of fire to manage the land is the key to modern bushfire management. Writer John Schauble, for The Age, (16th Feb, 2016) claims that “one of the first things English navigator James Cook noted was smoke. The immediate significance to Cook was not that this was a continent on fire, but that it was a place inhabited by man.” Thus, we must prevent fires the aboriginal way!
The incidence of fire has changed, along with our landscape, with one recent study pointing to a 40 per cent increase in bushfires between 2008 and 2013.
There have been major fires across the nation’s southern half, from south-west Western Australia to Tasmania, from the South Australian wheat belt to the Victorian holiday coast. The cost, ferocity and frequency of fires is escalating, and certainly beyond that experienced by the land’s fore-bearers, it’s indigenous custodians.
Another article in SMH, 6 Dec 2010, pours cold water on the popular notion that Aborigines carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape, and it’s a myth. An international team of scientists led by Scott Mooney, of the University of NSW, analysed results from more than 220 sites of charcoal records in Australasia dating back 70,000 years, the most comprehensive survey so far. According to the report, it was the arrival of European colonists more than 200 years ago that led to a substantial increase in fires, the study showed. ”We’ve put the firestick in the wrong hands,” Dr Mooney said. ”The firestick shouldn’t be in Aboriginal people’s hands. It’s really a European thing.”
During the past 2000 years, burning activity was ”remarkably flat, except for the pronounced increase in fire in the past 200 years”. That past “200 years” is due to European settlement!
People today are disconnected from their environment, more and more. The proportion of Australians living in rural Australia had dropped from just under 16 per cent in 1967 to 10.7 per cent by 2014. Australians have become urbanized, and distant from “the bush”. As a result, we no longer see the bush simply as something to be chopped down, dug up or redefined for agriculture. So, the writer is assuming that due to “conservation” and being sentimental about “the bush”, and urban environmentalists, we’ve let native vegetation become too abundant, and a fire threat?
The article says that “any bush firefighter with more than a few years of experience will tell you that the incidence and severity of bushfires is increasing”, despite massive reduction in forest cover. So, what we have left is more inflammable, and threatening.
The article concludes:
Perhaps one way forward for dealing with future bushfire is to relearn and apply Indigenous burning practices that have largely disappeared from some of our highest-risk bushfire landscapes.
That knowledge has not been completely lost. Now is the time to revisit a use of fire that put landscape, rather than man, at its centre.
The Advertiser, Adelaide (10th Oct 1893) reports that “It was on the afternoon of April 20, 1770, that the smoke signals of the Australian aborigines were first seen by Captain Cook, and were taken by him as proof that the land which he had discovered was the home of a new race of humanity. The same smoke spoke to the watchful eyes of the nomads of the wilds of the presence upon their southern seas of a strange big ‘canoe,’ and the warning sign sped on from point to point along the coast.”
There was no precedent for mass burning, or destructive holocausts of management fires, but their use for warning off invasions!
Cold water is poured on Aboriginal burnoff culture – 6th Dec, 2010
(Featured image: Firestick farming refers to the practice of the indigenous use of fire to promote the well-being of particular types of ecosystems.)