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Fire and Indigenous culture

Aboriginal people used a complex fire management techniques known as "fire-stick farming" that helped protect our fire-prone country from wildfires

Aboriginal people used a complex fire management techniques known as "fire-stick farming" that helped protect our fire-prone country from wildfires
Photo: Deborah Rose

History of Aboriginal burning practices

When Aboriginal people arrived in northern Australia probably more than 50,000 years ago, they found an environment shaped by fires sparked by lightning at the time of year the country is most flammable when the dry season starts giving way to the wet. Aboriginal people altered the pattern, developing complex 'fire-stick' management regimes.

In the Top End of the Northern Territory, for example, fires were lit progressively from early in the dry season as the vegetation in different landscapes — from plateau to floodplains — dried out sufficiently to burn. Objectives included attracting kangaroos and wallabies to re-sprouting perennial grasses, flushing out and trapping small game, and promoting the growth of valued plants such as water chestnut, a favoured food of magpie geese.

Each year this fire management produced an environmentally diverse mosaic of burnt and unburnt vegetation. It also meant, importantly, that fires started by lightning at the end of the dry season would burn less fiercely and over smaller areas than would otherwise be the case.

Changes to traditional fire regimes

Fire-Scars 1999

Since European settlement wildfires have increased (some of the red patches in the satellite map) because of the disruption to traditional fire regimes Map: Dept. Land Administration, WA

European settlement disrupted the traditional fire regimes, and over much of the tropical savannas the result has been a reversion to a greater incidence of high-intensity fires. A map compiled from satellite photographs taken during 1998 provides stark evidence of this. It shows that wildfires swept across vast areas of the Kimberley, Top End, Gulf Country and Cape York late in the 1998 dry season. They covered much more of the country than fires lit early in the season for management purposes.

The map also shows that large areas were not burnt at all; in fact, huge swathes of pastoral land extending from the southern Kimberley through the Victoria River District, Barkly Tableland and Gulf Country to eastern Cape York probably have not seen fire for at least a decade. One serious consequence of this change from previous fire regimes has been a proliferation of woody weeds—both native plants and exotics such as rubbervine—that reduce pasture availability and hinder mustering and other station activities.