History under fire

History under fire

04 November 2012

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia– There is a stark contrast when comparing fire in 1788 to now.

THERE is a crucial difference in how Australians see landscape fire. Non-Aborigines see a threat, destroying people and property. Aborigines know an ally, a friend in the bush, as in the fireplace. One group makes fire docile; the other cannot imagine doing so.

The difference means that the character of landscape fire changed after 1788: from being tame, it became wild. A central Australian elder said that “before the arrival of white people, Anangu did not know about really large bushfires, but now they do . . . the country had been properly looked after and it was not possible for such things as large-scale bushfires to occur”.

Compare this with Black Saturday, Black Thursday, Ash Wednesday, and any other black day.

In 1788, fire was almost infinitely varied: big, little, hot, cool, patch burns, sheet burns, changes in extent, frequency, timing and thus intensity according to season, purpose and circumstance.

Across the variety of 1788 fire and no fire, one factor was constant: fire was controlled. As Ludwig Leichhardt put it in 1845, it was part of the “systematic management” of country. It was part of Law, universally understood and respected. Law united Australia philosophically, fire united it ecologically. The genius of 1788 fire was that no matter what the plant community, people everywhere used it successfully to make country useful, abundant and beautiful.

Note that “beautiful”. After “bush”, the most common word newcomers used to describe the land was “park”, a word marking how Europe’s gentry made land useful and beautiful. “The country looked very pleasant and fertile,” Sydney Parkinson wrote in 1770, “and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park”. Hundreds of such remarks are on record, from every terrain and plant community. Fire worked its magic across Australia.

People worked hard to make parks. Plants, animals and fire were life studies. Seasons vary, rain is erratic, plants have life cycles, animals populate unevenly, fire has long and short-term effects, people differ on what to favour. Senior people were responsible for any fire, even a campfire, lit on land in their care. They decided what to burn, when, and how, but in deciding obeyed strict protocols with ancestors, neighbours and specialist managers.

“You sing the country before you burn it. In your mind you see the fire, you know where it is going, and you know where it will stop. Only then do you light the fire.” In other words you blend hard-won local expertise with knowing fire as a living part of the Dreaming, subject to Law via ceremony. The gains were immense. Fire’s challenge became opportunity. Controlled fire averted uncontrolled fire, and fire or no fire distributed plants with the precision of a flame edge. In turn this attracted or deterred grazing animals and located them in habitats each preferred, making them abundant, convenient and predictable. All was where fire or no fire put it. Australia was not natural in 1788, but made. This was the greatest achievement in our history.

Can we learn from it? Think of the plant and animal species to have become extinct or endangered since 1788. How did they flourish then? Their habitats were conserved, but how? There’s more to learn. Think of how salt has spread, and not only where trees have been cleared. Why so much less salt in 1788?

Trees are central to what Europeans think a “natural” landscape. In 1788 grass was central. Grassland carried many useful plants and most animals with most meat. It was a firebreak, it made seeing and travelling easier, and it confined forest, making forest resources more predictable. Almost always it took the best soil, and probably there was more grass then than now.

We talk of “pristine wilderness”, but in 1788 not an inch of country avoided Aboriginal mind and Law. Australia had no wilderness then, no terra nullius. It has both now. In national parks and reserves we have let trees and scrub run wild. This inevitably means hot fires, killer fires, and it discriminates against grassland plants and animals.

We should burn more. After Victoria’s February 2009 fires, I saw on TV how joyous people were at the bush regenerating green. I was dismayed. Another fire cycle was beginning, to end in another killer fire 40 or 50 years on. In 1788 people would never have let that happen, because their children could not have survived the inevitable holocaust. Instead, in autumn and winter 2009 they would have burnt off big patches of new growth, with small cool fires. Most scrub species need hot fire to regenerate, so with cool fires the mid-height scrub layer that would otherwise lift flames from ground to canopy never takes hold. It was no accident that newcomers delighting in 1788’s parks so often reported no “underwood”. That not only made parks, it was a vital fuel control.

Many people oppose frequent burning. Black ground is ugly and dirty, smoke is unpleasant and unhealthy, causes asthma, dirties the washing and so on. All true, but does it justify letting killer fires build up? And can the result really remain ugly when so many early newcomers praised how much country was park-like? Of course, we must make more smoke now than then, because we have let scrub and forest fuel build-up. It is a daunting task to return to 1788’s safer balance, but 1788 shows us the rewards if we do. If you know how to use fire, you can manage any vegetation, from spinifex to rainforest.

The year 1788 has given us a great gift. It shows what is possible.



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