Category Archives: controlled burns

“We’ve put the firestick in the wrong hands”- modern bushfire management

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.

It’s always been assumed that Indigenous Australians used fire to their own advantage using fires as a tool for hunting, farming and regeneration of the environment. The major cause of fires would have been lightning.  Most of the fires were relatively low intensity and did not burn large areas.  As a result, large intense bushfires were uncommon.

 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.”

For Bill Gammage, author of popular book ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia’ – the hypothesis is that all Aboriginal people farmed all of Australia using fire. This proposition was first published by Rhys Jones in an article in Australian Natural History in 1969 ‘Firestick Farming’.

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.

Modern “Man” has been at the “centre” of forest clearing, introduced species, extinctions and the dramatic changes to our landscape, causing more bushfires.
Joel Wright, a Gunditjmara Linguist,could find no evidence of landscape burning in the Victorian western district but outlined the use of fire for smoke signals.  Write spoke at an AWPC conference, “Pause and Review”, November, 2014.
Joel Wright is an indigenous language, culture and history researcher. He finds no evidence of wide-scale burning in Aboriginal language and culture, but does find other explanations for the history of aboriginal fires observed by Europeans. These were often smoke-signals exchanged between clans, for general communication and warning of approaching Europeans etc.

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!

 Queenie Alexander (YouTube of Pause and Review conference) writes that reduction and ecological burning etc. are based on the assumption that all Aboriginal people undertook fire-stick farming. Joel Wright finds no evidence of wide-scale burning in Aboriginal language and culture, but does find other explanations for the history of aboriginal fires observed by Europeans. These were often smoke-signals exchanged between clans, for general communication and warning of approaching Europeans etc. There was also defensive burning to hinder explorers by burning feed their for their stock. Other fires were to ‘cover their tracks’ when they were being pursued, etc.. Many of these fires were mistaken for landscape burning. Joel also found one record of burning small portions of dry grass around marshes to expose an area to attract birds to scratch for food there, making the birds potential meals for the indigenous hunters. Nowhere did he find anything to justify the destructive and dangerous annual incineration of the landscapes of the Gunditjamara by the Victorian Government. He was concerned that burning the bush as we do now kills the birds and animals so important to vegetation stories, removes scar and burial trees and burns micro particles from axes and spears that holds the clues as to what they were used for.
We need a more holistic approach, of restoring and protecting ecological communities, in forests, and their canopies, to protect them from drying, and thus reducing fire risks.
Prevent bushfires the Aboriginal way– The Age, 16th Feb, 2016

Joel Wright, “The language of fire.” Did Australian Aboriginals burn as we are told?

(Featured image: Firestick farming refers to the practice of the indigenous use of fire to promote the well-being of particular types of ecosystems.)

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How “controlled” are controlled burns?

A Lancefield fire spread from a “controlled burn” that breached containment lines. The circumstances of one of the most destructive fires has prompted the Victorian state government to look for fresh answers in how to prevent future outbreaks. The Lancefield “controlled burn” turned into a bushfire which has destroyed five homes, 19 sheds, burnt almost 3000 hectares and generated fury among local residents.

Opponents regularly express concern over the impact of planned, or prescribed, burns on native forest and native animals. Some have questioned whether fuel reduction burns actually work!

The fire spread from a controlled burn-off that breached containment lines, while much of Victoria’s attention was on the AFL grand final on Saturday afternoon. Fire Chief Mr Goodwin could not say how many staff were rostered on that Friday or Saturday.

The CFA had hoped to bring the 4000-hectare fire under control by Thursday night but was racing to gain the upper hand before a northerly wind change and possible thunderstorms on Saturday.

(image: Burnt koala, Environment East Gippsland: The wildlife cost of DEPI burns – shocking imagery. )

A fire-bombing aircraft helped Edgar’s Mission, near Lancefield, a farm animal sanctuary that houses 250 rescued animals.

Alan Goodwin said the Cobaw forest burn-off’s escape was regrettable, but he denied emphatically the operation had been under-staffed and ignorant of pending heatwave conditions.

An external review, led by the director of Western Australia’s Office of Bushfire Risk Management Murray Carter, will examine whether enough staff were allocated throughout the burn.

The fire defied efforts to contain it, and fire-fighters were redeployed elsewhere even though hot and windy weather was predicted. The first scare for DELWP came when the fire jumped containment lines on Saturday. 20 DELWP and Parks Victoria fire-fighters were monitoring the fire on the Sunday and Monday.

The policy to burn 5% of Victoria’s vegetation each year, in order to reduce the risk of bushfires taking hold near properties and critical infrastructure, will be under greater scrutiny.

Chief Officer of the CFA, Euan Ferguson, said “history has shown us that a well-managed, well-resourced planned burning program can be successfully executed, (and) can make a difference”.

Victoria has a long history of catastrophic bushfires. These “controlled” burns are a disgrace and those who organise them should be charged with arson. They choose the wrong days when the weather is too dangerous for a burn and when the fires get out of control it’s the farmers, the home owners, the native birds and animals, and the national parks that suffer.



These “controlled” or “prescribed” burns are about using fire to squelch fire. This is about burning hectares of our bush, in Victoria, to clear it of vegetation, and wildlife are simply the collateral damage. In reality, it’s making our State more flammable by destroying what actually limits fires – the biodiversity, ecosystems, fungi, tree canopies that produce rain and maintain moisture, and wildlife such as kangaroos that eat the long grass! Torching small animals, such as possums and tree-dwelling koalas, is considered part of the price of keeping forests “safe” for houses, and properties.

Victoria is so cleared, and damaged, it’s like a tinder box, really to inflame more due to so-called “controlled burns” out of control.
A better way too would be to use leading-edge technology and communication to quickly spot fires and put them out! Controlled burning should be not based on hectares burnt, but by controlling where the risks to people are property are the greatest, and assessed by need.


Letter: The Age, 9 Oct, 2015

I am not aware of one instance in which a controlled or planned burn has subsequently stopped or slowed the progress of a bushfire.   From the present Lancefield disaster back to the fire  that devastated Wilsons Promontory, and further back, many controlled/planned burns have become out of control.  In addition,  the poor air quality in regional areas  caused by controlled or fuel-reduction burns   seriously affects the health of residents.   This ridiculous practice must cease.  The only basis for controlled burning is the desire of successive state governments to be seen to be doing something about bushfires.   Authorities need to focus on such things as the prevention of arson, the education of machinery operators, and the use of 21st-century technology to locate fires as soon as possible after they start, so that they may be extinguished quickly.  Where, during our bushfire season, are the large jet air tankers used in the  US? 

John Christiansen, St Kilda

PETITION: Immediate halt to planned burns – review fire management policies.

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Kakadu bushfire sparked by ‘controlled burn’

Kakadu is a timeless place – beautiful and diverse beyond belief. It’s home to more than 2,000 plant species and some of the most charismatic animals around. Within the vast landscapes, there are six main landforms. These landforms are home to a range of plants and animals, endemic to Kakadu. Kakadu National Park supports an astonishing array of animals, and a number of which have adapted to particular habitats.

A bushfire on 1 October destroyed more than 200 square kilometres of bushland in this world heritage national park. The federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, has ordered an investigation into a week-long bushfire in Kakadu national park sparked after a mining company lost control of a “controlled burn” – a contradiction in terms!

Minister Hunt has asked the Department and Parks Australia to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the cause of the fire,” a statement said.

The fire threatened a number of culturally and historically significant sites. There was a change in wind after the burn had ended reignited embers and carried them across containment lines.

If the fire reached the rugged and waterless escarpment country, and it would be far more difficult to extinguish, Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) CEO Justin O’Brien said

“There’s no water in there, you can’t get suppression in there from the air, you can’t get boots on the ground in that country, it’s too rugged” he said.

Traditional owners blamed the operators of the Ranger uranium mine, ERA, for lighting a fire too late in the top end’s dry season and losing control of it.

(image: early burn at Kakadu)

The late dry season fire burned with more heat and torched trees used for habitat by endangered species,

ERA, majority owned by Rio Tinto, faces fines of up to $8.5m if it is found to have breached the environment protection and biodiversity conservation act. ERA has issued a statement saying it did not need approval to burn-off in its Ranger Project Area.

Fire management is undertaken both by traditional owners and park staff, mostly in the early to mid-dry season period (typically May-July) when fires tend to be small, patchy, of low intensity and typically go out at night under cool, dewy conditions.

Small mammal are in decline, due to fire regimes, characterised by frequent, extensive, late-season wildfires. Fire extent – an index incorporating fire size and fire frequency – was the best predictor of mammal declines, and was superior to the proportion of the surrounding area burnt and fire patchiness.

Work in Kakadu National Park has shown that between 1996 and 2009 mammal populations crashed, with species richness and total abundance decreasing by 65% and 75% respectively.

Prominent conservationist Tim Flannery asserts that “the main driver appears to be changes in fire regime, compounded by the presence of feral cats”. The breakdown of traditional Aboriginal fire management – and possible increase in the size and intensity of fires – is often suggested as a trigger.

The Northern Land Council says the devastating fires in Kakadu over the past week, caused by poor fire management by Energy Resources of Australia. “The fires have also highlighted the pressing need for the Australian Government to reinstate traditional fire management practices delivered by Aboriginal people across the Park. Kakadu is listed for its environmental and cultural values and it’s time to deliver outcomes that deliver on its cultural values in addition to its environmental values” says NLC CEO, Joe Morrison.
Large parts of the park have burnt over 10 times in the past 14 years. We say there is a significant opportunity to reduce this fire frequency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions coming from the park,” Mr Morrison said.


Petition: Save the Northern Quoll and 74 Other Endangered Species in Kakadu!

(featured image: Mount Borradail, Kakadu. Copyright of NT Tourism )

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Wildlife carers quitting after 30 years due to DELWP’s hostility towards kangaroos

Kangaroos nursed back to health after a planned fire escalated out of control now face a cull on the orders of the same department that ordered the burn. The very same department, DELWP, responsible for the care of wildlife, actually turned tail and permitted a “cull” of kangaroos, despite being tirelessly and lovingly nursed back to health by wildlife carers!

After a planned burn that started the Lancefield fire, they approved a six-month culling permit for the owner of a property that borders the shelter  – because of “damage caused by the kangaroos to the land”, where he runs sheep, and fences.  Surely more “damage” would be done by sheep than kangaroos?  However, the latter animals are economic assets, whereas kangaroos only have economic value when dead – for the pet meat trade!

The Authority to Control Wildlife permit application was approved, thanks to the farmer citing his desire to repasturise the land.  So, he can’t live harmoniously with native animals than have a minimal impact on grasslands?  This farmer got the go ahead to kill kangaroos on his property, which neighbours the Macedon Ranges (Victoria) Pastoria East Wildlife Shelter“All of the wild kangaroos here have been through that fire, they’ve all been impacted by it. They’ve lost habitat and food, they’ve been traumatised,” owner Christine Litchfield said.

Wildlife carers Ms Litchfield and Mr Ward say they are bemused by the department’s “heartbreaking” decision, considering DELWP formerly praised the work of the pair and wanted photos for an internal magazine!

“… Keep in mind we’re in a conservation zone, we are up against a large crown land forest. The idea that you’re going to kill kangaroos to stop this problem is unlikely to work completely,” Marcus Ward said.  What part of “conservation” do DELWP not understand?  What sort of Department, except an Orwellian one, would endorse the care and protection of wildlife – injured by their own “controlled burn” that got out of control – and also permit their “cull”?


Wildlife carers say they cannot continue to nurse injured kangaroos back to health only to risk having them shot by a neighbouring farmer once they are released.  These amazing people spend their own time and money on compassion and care for injured animals, only to have them lethally “managed”!  Marcus Ward, owner of the Pastoria East Wild Life Shelter, says he will have to close his doors after 30 years.

Under such a contradictory and twisted State government Department, presumably meant to be responsible for our wildlife, administer the Wildlife Act 1975, but at the same time approve of “culls” and the kangaroo meat industry in Victoria!  They can’t be the carers, conservationists and the killers at the same time – they are deeply embedded in conflicts of interests.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) decided not to prosecute the neighbouring property owner for animal cruelty, after kangaroos were shot in the body and left to bleed to death.  So, what and when do they actually do to protect wildlife in Victoria?


“We can’t continue… knowing any animal that comes here is under risk,” Mr Ward said.

“That won’t change until we’re confident the culling won’t proceed.”  Without Macedon Ranges’ Pastoria East Wildlife Shelter, Mr Ward said rescuers had few local options for shelters to take kangaroos.

“The shelter in Kilmore is overloaded from the area, and the one in Hepburn that we rely on a lot closed their doors to any new animals last week,” he said.

Native animals, especially kangaroos, are enemies of Victoria, and land-holders – apparently.   The facade that DELWP have any care of responsibility for native animals is becoming thinner and they are being exposed as more interested in commercial kangaroo meat – and cleansing the State of our iconic native animals – in the name of “progress” and profits!


PETITION: Call of plan to “cull” kangaroos


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