Fire In Australia
Traditional burning, or ‘fire-stick farming’, has played a central role in the construction and maintenance of Australian landscapes for thousands of years. In fact, paleogeological records indicate a shift in burning regimes coincided with the arrival of modern humans in Australia 45 thousand years ago. Aboriginal Australians used fire to achieve short-term outcomes such as increasing the abundance of edible plants and altering habitats to make them more suitable for herbivores. This burning may have extended the range and occurrence of fire-adapted species, as well as altering the life-history traits of plant communities. Due to this it is fair to say the Australian landscape evolved with anthropogenic burning, and only in the past 200 years since the removal of these practices have large threatening killer fires occurred.
In April I helped out with one of the final burns of the Paddocks Alight program run by the Lachlan CMA (now Central Tablelands Local Land Services) and the NSW RFS (see video below). This program reintroduces burning to the Lachlan Catchment and aims to:
- Improve agricultural productivity,
- Enhance biodiversity,
- Foster community participation, and
- Share traditional knowledge.
The burn I attended was on ‘Rosemont’, Mikla Lewis (cofounder of WIRES) and Wayne Lavers’ property to the west of Grenfell in NSW. The remnant Box-Gum Woodlands and Grasslands on the property were targeted for the burn. Before the burning began, a biodiversity survey was undertaken to determine a baseline to compare the response of fauna, flora and soil condition post-burn. Over 170 species of native plants, 90 bird species, 9 mammals and 14 reptiles have been recorded on the property. Hopefully the relationship between the influence of fire and its role in improving grazing management practices can be better understood through the program.
The burning process basically involved watching the Emu Creek RFS team set fire to debris using kerosene drip torches (a modern take on traditional burning) and ensuring no trees caught fire. The aim was to achieve a cool-patchy mosaic burn (think smoking grass as opposed to raging wildfire). This type of burning was used traditionally to improve fauna, flora and biodiversity. The smoke is actually key to the burn: contrary to popular belief it is the smoke not heat that many Eucalypts need to drop their seed and germinate. Dr Milton Lewis informed me in the Aboriginal view the canopy is sacred and not ours to touch, but we can burn underneath as long as it is not hot enough to scorch the branches. This is just one piece of traditional knowledge aiming to be shared through the program; if the branches were to be scorched they would fall and create a new fire hazard, negating the positive impacts of burn in the first place!
The impacts of the burn won’t be known until the response of biodiversity can be monitored, but hopefully by exploring the use of fire and reintroducing mosaic burning to the landscape fire can be viewed as a positive management tool lessening fear of fire in the environment.
Many thanks must be given to Gus Arnott, Dr Milton Lewis, Mikla Lewis and Wayne Lavers, and the Emu Creek RFS.
Annarose O’Ryan (u5025895)
Bird, R, Bird, D, Parker, C and Jones, J. (2008). The “Fire Stick Karming” Hypothesis: Australian Aboriginal Foraging Strategies, Biodiversity and Anthropogenic Fire Mosaics. PNAS. 105 (39).