Australia —Aboriginal use of fire to manage the land is the key to modern bushfire management says Bill Gammage, adjunct professor at the Australian National University. In his extensively researched book The Biggest Estate on Earth he sets out the case that Aboriginal people managed the land with fire. He says it is clear that from paintings and written records of the early European explorers and settlers that they found a land often described as ‘park-like’ or ‘like a gentleman’s estate’. This he says was the result of centuries of land management based on the use of fire.
Gammage says the pictorial and written records make it clear that the landscape Europeans discovered was not a natural one, but instead it was a landscape that had been made by Aboriginal people systematically burning forest in order to create grassland, and then using fire to maintain and refresh that grassland.
I’m sitting with Bill Gammage looking across the Towamba River to a thick forest extending in all directions through the Nullica State Forest to the Mount Imlay National Park behind us.
Many would say it was a pristine wilderness that needed preserving, and many would oppose burn-offs to reduce fuel load as a bushfire prevention method.
However Bill Gammage says that Aboriginal people from 1788 or earlier would see the same land as dirty country that has been let run wild.
He says that in pre-European times Aboriginal people would have managed the land as grassland, with the dense forests being confined to mountainous country.
Early explorers frequently recorded finding open country with scattered trees, like a park, where it was very easy to gallop a horse.
Early paintings and sketches often present the land as ‘park like’ but art historians explained it away as European artists ‘stylising’ the landscape to a European look.
Go to the location of those paintings and sketches now and the same sites may be covered with dense forest.
Gammage says that Aboriginal people created grassland as habitat for game, often up to a line of forest from which they could hunt, based upon a deep knowledge of how to control fire and especially and how to generate ‘cool fires’.
Over many generations Aboriginal people used fire to clear forest and then they were able to maintain grassland by doing what was termed ‘firestick farming’ by ANU Archeologist, Rhys Jones, when he wrote in 1969:
“What do we want to conserve, the environment as it was in 1788, or do we yearn for an environment without man, as it might have been 30,000 or more years ago?
“If the former, then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions.”
Gammage describes how Aboriginal people would light small fires on damp ground to create small firebreaks to join up with other burnt patches and create a ring of them or perhaps join the ends up to a creek to create a ring of firebreak around an area that can be burnt to create fresh grass growth.
Fire was a fundamental tool with these and other methods being applied constantly all over Australia for centuries longer than since European settlement.
It’s not the first time this message has been delivered.
Rhys Jones talked about it in the 1960s and back in 1890 Alfred Howitt delivered a talk to the Royal Society of Victoria that detailed much of the evidence Gammage also presents, but he says the Royal Society ‘just did not get it’.
And he says that people still have great difficulty comprehending the fundamental importance to Aboriginal culture of caring for the land and their depth of expertise.
Gammage says that while Australia now has a far larger population there are far fewer people involved in fire management than pre 1788 when all Aboriginal people were involved in caring for the land.
Aboriginal methods of fire control both protected them from major bushfire as well as creating grasslands for hunting.
Gammage says that modern fire managers and pastoralists through their experience are edging towards the methods used by Aboriginal people, mostly so far as learning how to control fuel loads.
He says the Aboriginal experience shows that it is possible to control fire and to avoid catastrophic bushfires.
However he says there is a European mindset that prefers trees, whereas Aboriginal people preferred fewer trees and more grassland.
The imperative to improve bushfire prevention and control techniques is provoking more research and much dialogue between fire managers and Aboriginal people.
When Gammage recently addressed a meeting in Bega at the NSW Rural Fire Service offices the large audience filling the large conference room comprised members of the RFS, NPWS, Forests NSW, and Aboriginal organisations, environmentalists, farmers, and others.