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To Help Australia, Look to Aboriginal Fire Management

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/01/15/help-australia-look-aboriginal-fire-management

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Backround - a 2012 ‘Science’ article:

The Aftermath of Megafaunal
Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation
in Pleistocene Australia

  • Susan Rule et al, 2012, Science VOL 335 23 MARCH 2012



This is a fascinating article, and available in full at the (non) link above. Just eliminate the asterisk after pasting in your browser and substitute an ‘h’.

Since Australia appears to be one of the first major victims of combined climate change and human colonial land use changes, perhaps they could be the first to adopt indigenous fire practice continent wide ?

Opposition will be fierce and racial.

If one reads the pdf article (*link provided), one comes to the realization that even for the first ever ‘Out of Africa’ incursion, we, homo sapiens sapiens, eliminated the original environment and the megafauna.

Something to ponder deeply I believe !


We’ll wait until Australia burns to the ground on our watch, then investigate indigenous ideas that span 50,000 years.

Something like 80% of the biomes remaining on Earth that still retain essential diversity are occupied and managed by indigenous peoples. The insensate stupidity and gluttony of the economic hegemon has shifted gears extending beyond genocidal to suicidal. Bolsonaro in Brazil is retrograde in the tone of descriptions written over a century ago by G. I. Gurdgeif in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. I am particularly fond of the term Gurdgeif coined: “trogoautoegocratic” … priceless !

“Only he who can take care of what belongs to others may have his own.”

—George Gurdjieff

Mongabay provides a rundown of the Bolsonaro institutionalized retrograde. Utilizing the asterix method of manysummits above…copy, paste and add an h:

This a really good, informative article. Thanks.

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Liked the article, the photo, possibly very disturbing. Now there’s the possibility that a new type of foam/retardant has been developed since I left the fire service, and non-toxic foam does exist, I’m hoping that one of these options is what’s being used in the photo. But if AFFF is being used, they have no clue why or how foam works in firefighting operations, and are contaminating this section of forest with little to no benefit in fire suppression.


This is an interesting article about an interesting set of ideas that have gained some currency recently. Recognition of the extent of aboriginal use of fire not only in Australia but across the globe and most particularly in California is still forthcoming.

There are some down sides to the practice, however, and these are often not taken into account in discussion.

The techniques were developed over a great deal of time and evolved with considerable distributed responsibility over land, with a radically different conception of property. It is very unclear how contemporary society might develop the requisite skills and insight to put this into practice.

There were other factors in the regime of burning that did not involve fire. Among these was a far, far larger population of non-human animals than has been the case under Euro-colonial “Western” occupation. We cannot snap our fingers and replace herds of bison or kangaroos or ecosystems that have been destroyed or crippled.

What has to be done, whatever decisions might be made about controlled burnings per se, cannot involve a return to prior conditions, but must involve an evolution into new conditions, probably incorporating many methodologies from past cultures. The evaluations regarding this should not be regarded as judgment of the aboriginal cultures, which have been misjudged enough. Rather,. evaluation is necessary to assess our own capacity to integrate one and another method into an acceptable way forward.

There are other methods of reducing fire risk that do not involve scorching earth and sending acres of carbon stores into the skies. A lot of these require more human labor per acre than did fire management. On the other hand, we now have a population that could engage the project, were it only properly educated to the task.

In most cases, perhaps all, fire management could better combine earthworks to retain water on the land and thereby increase precipitation and level out humidity in the wet/dry tropical and Mediterranean fire zones, extensive rotational grazing and a return of browsers and predators to problematic areas, and careful management of bands of fire-resistant species to reduce the spread of fire.

Perhaps in such a context, in isolated circumstances, a controlled use of fire might reasonably return, reintroduced by slow experiment. But denuding landscapes and burning down fuel loads is a poor representation of what controlled fire regimes were and a bad solution to the problems that we have.

Meanwhile, some of my favorite readings on the topic include Bruce Pascoe’s Black Emu, Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth. It’s a bit to think about.

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Entirely true - and the new Australia is much hotter and drier.

The aborigines call it ‘cool burning’, I read somewhere. Essentially taking out the fines in a controlled way in the appropriate season to prevent ‘big fires’.

Perhaps @ReconFire has thoughts on this ?

I have to start with an admission, I have very limited knowledge in wildland fire protection, more than the average person, but not at the level of professional wildland FF’s, the focus of my studies in the field was on urban fire protection. Western culture style “control burning” is used throughout my state to rid the underbrush that intensifies normal wildland fires, to prevent future damage to valuable timber stands. Usually these are done in the winter months, because of the intense summer heat and drying effect of the sun during that time. Because of the rainfall amounts we receive here (60-80" per year) this can safely be done with very limited manpower, if it’s done properly. After reading the story and some of the links inside it, I think this might be the key - manpower - and the cost of that manpower is what separates modern control burning methods over smaller, intensely supervised burns done by indigenous tribes of yesteryear. IMO this is why the “old” knowledge was pushed aside, it’s less profitable to the corporations that own these vast swaths of forest. I agree with you and @bardamu above, the land reading skills the indigenous people poses in Australia (and first nations people here in North America years ago) are special, but as they prove, can be taught and handed down to future generations. It could be done properly, but are we as a society willing to pay for it? In the US at least, we will not. Historically the fire service is usually one of the first to receive cuts when government money starts to dry up. I’ve seen this first hand in an urban setting, and I’m sure it’s no different for our brothers and sisters in the wildland setting. Australia and the US rely on volunteers to protect the majority of our wildland forests. Paid wildland FF’s are considered seasonal, and sent home after the season is over to save money. We use under-trained, under-paid prison labor, etc. If we are to expect any amount of normalcy in the future with climate change, this underfunding has to stop. These crews need expanding during the off season, to be taught and utilize the indigenous peoples practices and reduce the fuel load in our forests, to reduce the fire risks during the fire seasons, not sent home without pay.
In a nutshell, capitalism, and it’s inability to factor in societies needs or environmental needs over profit, strikes again.
Hope I’ve added something positive to this important discussion.

@ReconFire @manysummits

Actually, fire maintenance would be relatively low-labor, even were we to pay the people involved decently. That is why a relatively small population was able to manage it with significant success. That is actually one of the promising factors in burning regimes.

Also, there are many ways to count “cost” in currency–all hypothetical, really, though not less influential for that. If dollars measured value in a practical sense, we could put a dollar amount on spouses and children or on personal health without finding it strange. Money actually measures inequalities in access to goods and resources, tracking these for enforcement. For such reasons, the value in 2020 of having a forest standing on some given spot by 2050 will never be calibrated. Like the value of our children, it seems to slide quickly between infinity and zero. Our ideas about currency will derail us again and again, but I think that they could distort a burning regime as easily as stop it.

Part of what disturbs me in this context is what happens when some entity decides to burn the property of one person or family or corporation or another when Monsanto or the HOA decides that the polycultural garden or farm next door has become a hazard–which, of course, could in some instance be the case. What happens when the state or federal government or county or perhaps a large agricultural entity decide to burn an area that includes the farm on which someone has built fertility for a generation? How are we to assure that these decisions are not made as most decisions of government and business interventions actually are made at present?

The renewal of the soil and the regeneration of the land that is the larger issue, and the burning only one single potential method towards that end. How does this get steered and how integrated with other techniques, if at all? Clearly, there is no large group of people really advocating a return to pre-Columbian lifestyles, but it is not as though the success of this methodology was dependent solely on the burning regimes.

Altogether, my current impression is that we had better direct energies mostly to regenerating and rehydrating landscapes and to controlled grazing rather than to controlled burning. This also reduces fuel load, but it also directly aids fertility, increases soil biota, and sequesters carbon rather than the reverse–and burning does the reverse of each of those.

Of course, controlled burnings done well might be of less labor input than that and might be of use in some instances. Certainly they are better than a crown fire, if the choice realistically comes to that.

What is called a “cool fire” is not very similar to the intense crown fires that we get nowadays in California and Australia and elsewhere. It does not smelt the surface soil to glass. But it is still a great cost to fertility, and a part of Native controls that is not as often mentioned is that these areas were all very heavily grazed or browsed, even though the Native populations were not generally managing most of the animals in the sense that we talk about managing grazers. The grazing of fresh growth after the controlled burns returned fertility to the land as regularly as areas were burned. This would no longer happen automatically.

I am thinking that the first orders of defense in at least most cases should involve grazing and browsing or the encouraging of wild grazers and browsers, along with earthworks and other work to retain water in the landscape.

Sorry, but I have to disagree with some of your points. Fire maintenance will not be low-labor for many, many, years into the future. The reason is man, for over a hundred years we’ve been putting out every wildland fire we can. This approach has allowed a huge increase in underbrush, that allows these fires to go crazy, that used to be eliminated naturally by frequent fires caused by lighting strikes before man started intervening. Also adding to the problem is a lack of old growth timber that provided a thick canopy layer that used to limit the underbrush growth and provided shade to limit soil moisture evaporation. Because of this huge fuel build-up, it will require lots of manpower to limit these burns in size, speed of fuel consumption, and generated heat to keep them out of the lowered canopy heights. This will also produce the “cool fires” that wont damage the seeds in the upper soil levels, needed to regenerate that forest. The indigenous people who perfected these methods weren’t working 9-5 jobs, and could afford to put a lot of bodies in the forest when needed. After many years of this, then the amounts of labor needed will be reduced.
I do agree large scale soil regeneration and carbon sequestering is needed, but until the excessive fuel load is dealt with, it will burn up as well. Hemp seems to be the best at this process, but stress on the local plant species will have to be addressed by scientists in that field of study.
As far as introducing grazing species, this could also become problematic, due to the damage to soil structure caused by these grazers. All a delicate balancing act determined, hopefully, by people with much more knowledge about the subject than I have.

There is a long history of mismanagement of grazers that makes the assumption that they are damaging to soil tempting, but it is incorrect. They damage when mismanaged, and that damage can be drastic. However, lands under native care were far more grazed than they have been since, outside of feed lots and the like. The herds were managed reasonably by predators, somewhat like the wolves that were reintroduced into Yellowstone–a nice story and an encouraging one.

The so-called cool fires do not damage all seeds, but leave those of fire-adapted species. The problem is not that they kill seeds, but that they eliminate a lot of the soil biota that accomplish soil fertility–fungi, protozoa, bacteria, and little plants and creatures near the surface of the soil. Even well managed fire creates a lot of damage; it just creates less damage than poorly managed fire, and it can produce positive results as well.

Care is needed for soil structure under grazers, but much more so under fire.

It’s the same carbon when we say it’s sequestered as when we call it fuel load. The trick is to return it to the soil, as much as possible in the form of actively living components that recycle themselves, rather than burned or leached off or otherwise removed.

There are probably a lot of excellent uses to hemp to which it has not been put, but no one species can make an ecosystem, and that is what has to be developed. So that is going to involve ample networks of species, only some of which are apt to be in obvious direct relationships with people.

Fuel load can be reduced by methods other than burning; these just do take more labor than burning does, and more time. Doing so leaves the soil richer and sequesters more carbon. Burning fails that. Still, whatever quantity of labor either of us choose to call a lot or a little, the burning is a less labor than are other means that more fully accomplish the ample recovery of fertile land. Still, it seems to me that recovery of the land has to be the eventual goal whether we are burning or not, since it is what supports human life as well as the lives of other terrestrial forms.

But a lot of things cannot be done before the next fire. That opens the field to stopgap measures. Limited use of fire is among the more promising of these.

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