The catastrophic bushfires that have torched much of the country since September have raised many questions about fire management in Australia. While a shocked and shattered population are blaming everyone from environmentalists to the Prime Minister other stories are emerging of what appear to be lucky escapes but may just hold the answer to best-practice fire management for the future.
There are many different types of fire that occur in Australia. These include:
There are three main types of deliberate fires in Australian bushland:
Cultural burning is also known as firestick farming and it is no coincidence that the word farming is used in this phrase. For traditional Aboriginal People land was their food, their livelihood, their country and their home. Despite over two centuries of colonial propaganda, we now know that Aboriginal People managed crops (of grasses, grains and tubers) to provide sustainable food. They farmed eels and fish to establish an ongoing food source. And through cultural burning they managed the safety of the land that supported plant and animal species that provided food and resources for survival. The fire was used to manage the land and produce more favourable outcomes for survival.
Cultural burning employs small, “cool” fires that encourage the regrowth of desirable native plants.
It is a practice that has been perfected over centuries. There are cultural protocols involved. Indigenous practitioners vary their techniques to match the particular country that they are in. Their knowledge of the land enables a targeted approach.
The heat of any fire will determine what plants grow back. For example:
Hazard reduction burns are a contentious issue. There is much misinformation by climate deniers that the 2019-20 summer fires are purely the result of tree-hugging environmentalists preventing the undertaking of hazard reduction burns. This has been countered by a range of experts from scientists to fire chiefs who explain that such burns are never the decision of community groups or political parties. Hazard reduction burns must be undertaken when circumstances and resources allow. The weather must be favourable to undertake hazard reduction burns. If the ground is too wet after rain, the fires won’t burn. If the land is too dry and the wind is strong, the fires can’t be undertaken safely. Even when conditions are ideal there is public outcry that the smoke has settled in heavily populated areas causing health risks (for example, hazard reduction burns in the Blue Mountains have been known to fill the Sydney basin with smoke).
Aspects of climate change (longer, hotter summer periods, more heatwaves and longer-lasting drought) have been seen to reduce the window in which hazard reduction burns can be undertaken and that in turn puts pressure on fire services to maximise the efficiency of burns when they can be done. But this approach could be contrary to the practice of cultural burning because a hot, hurried burn may cause the regrowth of a plant community that becomes the fuel load of a subsequent fire season.
Cultural burning is a practice developed over millennia. Indigenous fire management involves many layers of knowledge. Practitioners must know about different country, different types of tree, different ecosystems that burn differently at different times of year. It aims for “cool” burns that improves the health of Country and makes a safer environment. It is an ongoing process. As plants regrow the type and distribution of species is monitored to see if further burning is required. Ongoing inspection and maintenance is crucial.
In the recent summer bushfire crisis stories have emerged of unprotected properties surviving a fire that completely surrounded them. Owners had evacuated and thought their homes were lost. No-one remained to extinguish the flames and yet the homes escaped the blaze. This seemingly miraculous outcome has been attributed to recent cultural burns which reduced to fuel load in the nearby bush in those specific locations.
In other places, the fuel load on the ground meant fires burnt so ferociously that they reached the canopy of the trees where the eucalyptus oil provided an additional, explosive fuel source that was difficult to combat and often caused firefighters to retreat and homes to be lost.
Australians are indebted to the brave and hardworking volunteer firefighters who have faced this catastrophe with bravery, skill and dedication. Some have paid the ultimate price, losing their lives to save others and questions will be asked about how this can be avoided in the future. Why does so much responsibility fall to unpaid citizens? How can we reduce the risks in the summers ahead.
Meanwhile, throughout Australia, many Aboriginal groups are learning and teaching the ageless methods of cultural burning. While some fire-fighting experts have denounced the current method of hazard reduction burns in favour of cultural burning, the practice has not been widely employed. Hopefully as the smoke recedes and the embers of this terrible summer die out there will be extensive investigation of how we manage fire risk on this continent with appropriate deference to the people who have been practising their methods and refining their techniques for thousands of years.
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