CFA's key lessons learned to date
Fire is used for many different cultural and living purposes for Aboriginal people across Australia. For this reason, Traditional burns (or cultural burns) mean different things to different people. Fire is at the heart of many Aboriginal cultures and the knowledge of its use has been shared between generations for thousands of years.
Land & fire management
“Bushfire disasters, such as Black Saturday fires in Victoria, generally centre on wet sclerophyll mountain ash forests, but tree core analysis indicates wildfires in these forests were largely unknown before the arrival of Europeans. The means of management of these forests by Aboriginal people is not clear but first-hand accounts of settlers and explorers indicate that a mosaic pattern of low-level burns was the method employed.”
- Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?
p116, Magabala Books March 2014
Traditional burns primarily use cool burn (or ‘environmental’ or ‘ecological’ burns) techniques as part of their burning practices. In one instance where CFA has engaged with Aboriginal Traditional Burning practitioners, key lessons learned emerged about the meanings associated to Traditional Burning (which can be different for different clans) as well the benefits of the techniques employed (from the Traditional Burning Workshop near Orange NSW, October 2014)
The purpose of traditional burning (in this instance) was about maintaining or restoring health of the natural environment – i.e. ‘bringing back country’. This is entirely consistent with a people and culture which can rely on that natural environment for food and survival. Fuel reduction outcomes, although inevitable and desirable, are in this context a secondary outcome.
Vegetation Management Officer Phil Hawkey at a traditional burning workshop near Orange NSW in October 2014 - observing the low intensity backing fire in serrated tussock.
The knowledge required to use fire to maintain the health of an entire ecosystem over millennia to the level of healthy human survival is immense, involving intimate knowledge of every species. Individuals were ‘bequeathed’ responsibility for maintaining the health of certain species.
Fire was therefore used with specific species in mind, for maximum positive response, and absolutely minimum harm.
Individual plants were protected by various means, including raking and sweeping of litter away from tree trunks, and peeling bark off lower trunks to prevent fire scorching crowns.
Neil Ingram demonstrates that the ground is cool to touch immediately behind the burning edge. Low intensity burns preserve some soil stored seed and removes the competition from mature grass tussocks (near Orange, NSW, Traditional Burning Workshop 2014)
Key differences to contemporary burning practices
The traditional burning practice as demonstrated at the 'Lighting the Path' workshop creates fires of short duration (a few hours) of low intensity and with coverage at a small scale.
A key difference between a burn as practiced by Aboriginal people and the larger higher intensity burn as practiced by non-Aboriginal people (especially by fire and land management agencies) is:
1. the ignition method, and
2. fire suppression capability
The use of fuel delivered by drip torch (or incendiary method) to ignite a burn, combined with provision of fire suppression resources (fire appliances, fire fighters and water) allows for large scale and long duration burns. In contrast, traditional practice involves single or multiple point ignitions by hand without the aid of fuel as an accelerant. The traditional practice may direct fire by physically manipulating fuel but does not rely on fire suppression resources to direct or extinguish.
On occasion, straw is spread around the area to allow fire to spread where required. This approach can be used to treat invasive species.
Ignition was always by point ignitions, often just a single point.
Low intensity backing fire was used so as not to kill soil stored seed. Soil temperature was to be low enough to place bare hand on soil surface just after fire passed. Purpose was to remove surface litter, to allow soil stored seed to germinate.
Because burn areas were often quite small, advantage could be taken of shorter periods of suitable weather, including evenings and overnight.
Because fire intensities were so low and burn preparation so thorough, heavy fuels were prevented from igniting, significantly reducing the danger of re-ignitions.
Heavy emphasis was placed on planning ahead, to anticipate the fire behaviour for the whole of the burn.
The result of a traditional burn around a large tree, the native ground covers resisting fire at its base (near Orange, NSW, Traditional Burning Workshop 2014). Photo courtesy of Roger Strickland
Phil Hawkey and Shane Charles talk about traditional burning
Seymour Incident Control Centre, 2014.
Video by Marcus Salvagno
Is traditional burning practiced in Victoria?
European settlement and previous law and government policies has disrupted the connection between aboriginal people and their land. Despite these changes Aboriginal people retain their sense of themselves as part of the land and of custodianship conferred on them (caring for country). In most of Victoria, unlike parts of northern and central Australia, the continuity of Aboriginal burning practice has been disrupted. ‘Country’ has been fragmented by land use. The practice of Aboriginal burning in a Victorian context therefore cannot be restored to a known pre-settlement state or in accordance with complete body of cultural knowledge.
However, the adoption of low intensity fire provides Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with opportunities to build new knowledge that is suitable for the modern fragmented landscape. Roger Strickland, a CFA Planned Burn Coordinator, who has participated in a traditional burn (Orange NSW, 2014) explains that, “Unfortunately the majority of Aboriginal people in NSW and Victoria have lost their knowledge of traditional burning techniques and practices”. He also recognises CFA’s role in working “in partnership with the Aboriginal community to bring back traditional burning knowledge and practices”.
“CFA and Victoria's Aboriginal community have something very special in common – Fire.”
- Professor Uncle Henry Atkinson
The Department of Environment, Water and Planning and the Catchment Management Authority have run some trial burns using traditional burning techniques in a few locations in the state in the past few years. Interest is growing within the community and within the fire agencies and other partner agencies to learn more and to continue to trail and test this way of managing the land with fire.
How can you organise a Traditional Burn in your area?
CFA is in a unique position to work with Aboriginal communities across Victoria to support and strengthen Aboriginal traditional burning practice.
It is vital for CFA members to understand that they are not conducting a traditional burn just by using a cool-burn technique as part of a planned-burn. If it is not conducted in partnership with an Aboriginal person or group, then it is not a traditional burn.
Additionally, if CFA members want to conduct traditional burns, they may either partner with an Aboriginal person or group who are the Traditional Owners of the land in which they are conducting the burn, or they may intend to invite an Aboriginal person or group from another area to conduct a traditional burn on land where they do not have Traditional Ownership. In the latter case, they must seek permission from the Traditional Owners of the land in which they will be conducting the traditional burn prior to any planned-burning activities.
As there are certain protocols that must be followed by CFA members wanting to conduct a traditional burn, they must contact CFA’s Team Leader (Vegetation Management) Owen Gooding prior to organising the burn. Please contact via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 03 9262 8617.
Hear more about traditional fire management practices from CFA members and other respected Aboriginal leaders below.
The Cultural Heritage Act
Kerang Brigade Brigade & Barma Forest, 2015.
Video by Marcus Salvagno