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.
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
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.