Posted on 14 December 2017

It seems that each year now, whether due to a dry spring, wet winter, climate change or El Nino, we are warned that conditions are just right for an intense bushfire risk over the coming summer. With this in mind, land managers typically undertake hazard reduction burning during the cooler months to reduce the fuel loads in the bush.  

Fire ecology is a complex and evolving topic. Fire plays a key role in Australian ecosystems and has been used extensively for thousands of years by Aboriginal people to manage the land and food resources. As well, the Australian bush has evolved with fire, and many native plant species rely on fire to reproduce. Since European settlement and the introduction of agriculture, the nature of fire (its extent, patchiness, frequency, intensity and seasonality) has changed significantly. An issue for our densely inhabited urban areas is the danger of fire escaping and the absence of natural fire cycles (including indigenous burning).

Australians of European background have attempted to manage fire risks to property in a number of ways, including fuel reduction burns. Fuel reduction burns (also known variously as prescribed, planned, controlled or hazard-reduction burning) is the targeted burning of ecosystems with the aim of reducing fuel loads; decreasing the risk of bushfire damage to people, property and the environment. The fuel reduction burns that are commonly undertaken in our bushland suburbs are typically quite hot and happen during the winter months. This can cause some plant species to drop out of the ecosystem as the fire is not at the correct time, or is too hot, or too soon, or too late for their reproductive systems to benefit.  ‘Ecological burns’ are also undertaken in some bushland reserves in an attempt to restore missing species, without consideration of what species need to be restored or their fire needs. Absence of natural fire cycles in areas with high levels of human population can also lead to the loss of some native plant species from the ecosystem, especially the ones that rely on fire for reproduction, and may also affect ecosystem processes in ways we do not yet understand. There is much debate about the effectiveness of fuel-reduction burning, given that a huge area of landscape needs to be treated in order to increase the chance of significantly influencing wildfire behaviour

This approach is a very different way of employing fire in landscapes to the methods used by the original inhabitants and caretakers of the land. Enter cultural burning. The aim of cultural burning is for healthy resilient landscapes, not just to protect assets, although they are not mutually exclusive

Earlier this year Local Land Services hosted a 2 day Cultural Burning orkshop. The first day was a seminar at the Museum of Fire, followed by a field day of practical experience at ‘Wallaroo’, a property in western Sydney owned and managed by the Cumberland Land Conservancy.

Presented by Koori Country Firesticks Aboriginal Corporation (KCFSAC), a non for profit organisation that aims to revive Traditional Aboriginal cultural practices of burning Country as an alternative approach to hazard reduction techniques used by private and public landholders and managers, the workshop attracted a wide range of participants from Rural Fires Service, Councils, National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Green Army and Bushcare volunteers.

Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen led the practical session. Victor’s mission is to apply traditional knowledge to contemporary landscapes. He said that typically, country is not burned (frequently) enough, and when it is, it is burned too intensely. Victor says the only fire is the right fire for that country. For example, a cultural burn would never burn the canopy: if the canopy burns, the fire is the wrong type. The first step to understanding this is learning how to read and understand the country, by looking at it as a whole and observing its characteristics such as soil colour and shape. Only then will one know what the right fire is. Reading country is about the health of the country. Sick country needs fire to restore its health. One of the signs that country is sick is a heavy layer of leaf litter.

Typically undertaken more frequently than a planned or prescribed burn, cultural burns are typically ‘cool burns’. They need to occur at the right time of year for that country. A ‘cool burn’ fire burns grasses and leaf litter and some shrubs while leaving shrubs, tree canopies and animals unburned. A cool burn might be repeated 2 or 3 times within days or weeks. Cool burns are so cool that the fire puts itself out, and it is possible to walk on the ground barefoot as soon as the fire has passed. The soil remains cool throughout and the vital soil fauna is left unharmed.

Fire requires three elements: air, fuel and heat. Culturally the air is talking with people, the fuel is reading country, and the heat is taking action. Only healthy people can make a healthy burn. The practical session at Walaroo began with a smoking ceremony prior to burning for the people participating so they are cleansed before going onto the land. It’s important to understand and respect these cultural aspects of fire, because to indigenous Australians, culture and country are inseparable. Caring for country is culture to indigenous people.

To start the cultural burn, a fire is lit in a circle. This is a specifically chosen ignition point so that the fire burns outward from that point and animals have a chance to escape to safety. Victor says that fire should behave like water, trickling though the country. In comparison, hazard reduction burns are typically lit in a straight line.

Undertaking cultural burns is a way to promote reconciliation and help heal the land in a culturally sensitive and ecologically positive way.

In 2016 NSW NPWS adopted a Cultural Fire Management Policy, and hopefully more land managers will come on board to this way of managing land, ecosystems and fire risk. While this may not seem all that relevant to Waverley’s bushland at first, we are experiencing a decline in species richness in some of our bushland remnants due to the ageing of the vegetation communities there, something that could be reversed with some correctly timed burning. Ecological burns have been undertaken at the York Rd Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub site and have resulted in good species regeneration and Council is aiming to undertake ecological burns when and where it is appropriate.

To find out more about fire ecology and cultural burning: 

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