Aboriginal burning practices: a solution to Australia’s wildfires?

Cultural burning in Australia reduces fuel loads and prevents catastrophic bushfires. (Photographs courtesy of Michael-Shawn Fletcher)

Australia’s past holds keys to bushfires and to how they can be prevented.

The cause of the 2019–20 “black summer” bushfires that swept across Australia—burning over 40 million acres and 3,000 homes and killing 33 people—can be found in Australia’s history, says Michael-Shawn Fletcher.

And a solution may also be found by looking back, he says: restoring the cultural burning practices of the Aboriginal people who first settled the continent 65,000 years ago.

“We sit here with this feeble attempt to fight and battle and contain [fire] rather than embrace, and love and embed,” said Fletcher, a Wiradjuri man and associate professor of geography at the University of Melbourne. Fletcher painted the historical backdrop of the Australian bushfires in a recorded presentation released Oct. 16 during the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons in Science briefings at the virtual ScienceWriters2020 conference.

When British colonists invaded Australia, a land that was home to many Aboriginal peoples, in the late 1700s they brought an attitude of Western superiority, ideas of European land management, and a fear of fire. Unbeknownst to them, they had just settled on the most flammable continent.

Before the British, historical records indicate that Aboriginal peoples maintained the grassy and open landscape by frequent burning of the vegetation, which kept fire fuels low. “Humans are a fire organism,” Fletcher said.

cultural burning
Cultural burning in Australia reduces fuel loads and prevents catastrophic bushfires. (Photographs courtesy of Michael-Shawn Fletcher)

These early Aboriginal Australians used fire as a tool to create reliable and safe environments in a highly unpredictable landscape. Fires created areas of refuge, cleared bush for easy transportation, and kept the landscape tidy. “It’s a lot like mowing the lawn in your garden. If you let your yard go three years without mowing, it’s going to look like an overgrown mess,” Fletcher explained in an interview following a live Q&A session with writers Oct. 20.

Aboriginal people who survived the decades of frontier massacres, infections, and mass poisonings inflicted by the British invaders were ripped away from their culture and from the land on which they relied. With the loss of Indigenous people from the landscape came a loss of cultural burning, Fletcher said. Soon shrubs and trees began colonizing the open spaces and adding more fuel for fires.

Now fire is treated as a threat by Australians. Fletcher pointed out the combative language used to describe people’s relationship with fire: with militaristic force, humans form brigades to extinguish and suppress fires. The element that was once humanity’s greatest tool became its enemy.

Reconnecting humans with nature can improve the land

Fletcher pointed out, during the interview, that when people force a division between nature and culture, biodiversity declines, as seen in Australia in the centuries since the British arrived. Aboriginal peoples, he said, believe that when we care for the land, it cares for us. According to Fletcher, when we remove  people from the landscapes they have historically inhabited, we destroy the environment.

burned land

The solution is getting the right people managing landscapes, and Western scientists may not be the right people for the job, he said. Western science tends to segment fuel loads and biodiversity into separate areas of management. Indigenous management takes a more holistic approach.

Traditional cultural practices are beginning to gain wider support. Recently the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation has attracted government support and shown success in returning cultural burning to Australian landscapes in the tropical savannas. By burning throughout the dry season, Aboriginal people prevented large, catastrophic fires because there was less fuel to burn. This also increased biodiversity and reduced carbon loss. Similar practices are now being carried out across the continent.

Now, Fletcher and his team are working to connect cultural traditions with Western science to get the data about cultural burning into the hands of decision makers.

“The solution to this problem isn’t removing people,” he said. “It’s changing the way that people do things.”

Brianne Palmer (@briecology, she/her) is a PhD candidate who studies microbial ecology at San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis. Reach her at Palmer wrote this story as a participant in the ComSciCon-SciWri workshop at ScienceWriters2020.