Small aboriginal fires to prevent big fires in Australia
January 6, 2020 3:22 PM   Subscribe

 
I believe this was posted on the blue before, but aboriginal society basically survived 120,000 without being exposed to the kind of bushfires we have today. Australia was managed as a rich and fertile garden, with open grasslands that attracted pasture animals, and not left to be overgrown wild by flammable gum trees... when white people came to Australia, their idea of "nature" or national park was to literally cordon off an area and let it grow wild, to a tree density of 10x what the Aborigines would have allowed - a recipe for disaster.

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This is a really interesting article by Bruce Pascoe about how much aboriginal history and technology was deliberately erased by the white settlers in Australia as a way of justifying their slaughter and theft of the "empty" and "unoccupied" land of Australia. It's so long and rambling so I've copy pasted the most relevant parts here.

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Lieutenant Grey in his 1839 ‘exploration’ of parts of Western Australia, so far unseen by Europeans, saw yam gardens more than five kilometres wide and extending a distance past the horizon and because the land had been so deeply tilled he could not walk across it.

Sir Thomas Mitchell in the country that is now the Queensland–New South Wales border area rode through 17 kilometres of stooked grain that his fellows described as being like an English field of harvest.

Isaac Batey saw that the hillsides of Melbourne were terraced in the process of yam production and that the tilth of the soil was so light you could run your fingers through it.

Mitchell saw these yam fields stretching as far as he could see near Gariwerd (Grampians). He extolled the beauty of these plains assuming that God had made them so that he could ‘discover’ them, not once thinking how peculiar it was for the best soil in the country to have almost no trees. This was a managed field of harvest.

George Augustus Robinson saw women stretched across those same fields of horticulture in the process of harvesting the tubers.

Charles Sturt had his life saved in Central Australia when he came upon people who were harvesting a river valley and supplied him with water, from their well, roast duck and cake. Both Mitchell and Sturt described the baked goods as the lightest and sweetest they had ever tasted. How many historians have read those comments and yet not one has considered that it would be in the nation’s commercial and culinary interests to find out the particular grasses from which those flours were made?

E.M. Curr noticed that as he brought the first vehicle into the plains south of Echuca his cart wheels ‘turned up bushels of tubers’. Once again some of Australia’s best soils were almost bereft of trees, the plains having been horticulturally altered to provide permanent harvests of tubers. Unlike Mitchell’s self-indulgent congratulations, Curr was aware who had produced this productivity and later recognised that it was his sheep that destroyed it.

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James Kirby is one of the first two Europeans in the country of the Wati Wati near Swan Hill. They pass gigantic mounds of bulrushes stacked up and steaming and wonder about the vast enterprise but never think about the productivity of that plant. Aboriginal people were harvesting the base of the stem as a delicious salad vegetable and making mounds of the leaves to process starch, just one more source of baking flour.

Kirby notices a man fishing on a weir his fellows have built across the river. Well, Kirby assumes with great reluctance that blacks built it, but only because he knows he is the first white man to see them. The construction of the dam included small apertures at the bottom so that water and fish movements could be controlled. Kirby describes the operation:

--- a black would sit near the opening and just behind him a tough stick about ten feet long was stuck in the ground with the thick end down. To the thin end of this rod was attached a line with a noose at the other end; a wooden peg was fixed under the water at the opening in the fence to which this noose was caught, and when the fish made a dart to go through the opening he was caught by the gills. His force undid the loop from the peg, and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the head of the black, who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again around the peg. ---

The man refuses to look at Kirby even though he knows Kirby is watching. Already the Wati Wati have decided correspondence with Europeans is not to their advantage but he seems proud of his technique. You could say his manner was insouciant.

But how does Kirby explain the operation? He writes, ‘I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true.’ So Kirby renders weirs and constructions, machinery and productivity as laziness. Wasn’t he describing an operation that would fit neatly into any description of European inventiveness and industry?
posted by xdvesper at 3:31 PM on January 6 [81 favorites]


From the other side of the world (Canada): Prescribed fires save money and lives. Why don’t we do more?
First Nations communities executed burns for centuries, sometimes in Northern Alberta near present-day Fort McMurray, but modern mentalities have posited fire as an element to be extinguished. Dave Gill, forestry manager for the West Bank First Nations in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., says his community would and should be prescribing a fire every 10 to 15 years, but they no longer perform any because of liability rules.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:45 PM on January 6 [6 favorites]


would and should be prescribing a fire every 10 to 15 years, but they no longer perform any because of liability rules.
Liability has also stopped scheduled burns by the Nature Conservancy and Air Force in California’s Central Valley, that I know of. Even when almost everyone understands that the eventual fire will be worse, no one could afford to be found responsible for damages from even a small one.
posted by clew at 3:58 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


Should be noted that preventative cool burns generally only burn the fuel on the forest floor, and low level undergrowth. They don't burn the forest canopy.

Unfortunately, especially in the southern regions, it is the explosive, fast moving, and extremely intense canopy fires that are the real danger in Australian bushfires.

It is hard to appreciate how they behave and just how incredibly dangerous they are without actually seeing one in action firsthand.

Plus, with increasing temperatures and droughts, courtesy of climate change, the window of opportunity to do the (relatively) safe cool burns is getting smaller and more difficult to take advantage of.

Australia needs to do a serious rethink about its relationship with bushfire.
posted by Pouteria at 4:11 PM on January 6 [16 favorites]


In addition to being protective against the growth of wildfires, regular burns can help native plant species and keep out non-native - from the first link:
"There will probably be a good response of fresh growth after the burn and the fire may have triggered some germination of (native) plants that weren't evident here before," she said.

"And possibly, [there may be] some regeneration of seedlings and some new growth on some of the trees as well."

Dr Massy said the burning would create much-needed biodiversity and was an important tool that needed to be part of a day-to-day routine.

"You're going to be killing exotic seeds and encourage germination of natives," he said.
I had wondered whether there was an indigenous fire practice in Australia, as there had been in North America (as in New England) - I'm not surprised that there is, but I'm also fascinated by how the "cool fires" work.

I was trying to remember a book I had heard of, but not read, of a history of the world through fire, or maybe the history of fire management. It turns out that I was probably remembering not on book, but a whole series of them by Stephen Pyne - who also has a Ted talk on fire and the environment.
posted by jb at 4:15 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Well - presumably reintroducing small burns would increase the proportion of fire-adapted plants in your landscape, but sometimes those aren’t native.
posted by clew at 4:24 PM on January 6


Well - presumably reintroducing small burns would increase the proportion of fire-adapted plants in your landscape,
Problem is that there is a limit to how fire resistant (non-grass) plants can be. Native flora evolved resistance to (and sometimes the need for) the occasional short, low-medium intensity fire, but not the increasingly intense, frequent, and prolonged fire seasons we are getting.

but sometimes those aren’t native.
Gamba grass, for example, which greatly increases fire risk. Firefighters hate it.
posted by Pouteria at 4:46 PM on January 6


Medusahead grass, where I’ve been. And lots of pines with fire-released seed that still don’t survive the fire intensity of modern temperatures plus eucalyptus.
posted by clew at 5:13 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the ecologist’s objections to the small cool burns were.
posted by clew at 7:57 PM on January 6


Australia practices prescribed burns, but they aren't always practicable everywhere. We're currently in a(nother) multi-year drought (in part due to the Indian Ocean dipole and current level of the subtropical high-pressure belt, delaying monsoon season and bringing hotter temperatures from the interior) so hazard-reduction can be a problem, even in winter. The wind doesn't always cooperate either.
posted by lipservant at 8:07 PM on January 6 [10 favorites]


I remember bushfires back in November/October, traditionally burning off time.

The window of good weather for a reduction burn is shrinking (due to climate change), not that "they're not allowed to burn anymore." (Need to find some good sources to back that up- it's the sense I have after marinating in news sources the last month and a bit.)
posted by freethefeet at 8:11 PM on January 6 [8 favorites]


Pouteria ^
Australia needs to do a serious rethink about its relationship with bushfire.


From the neighbour here but Australia's relationship with bushfire has been deeply hindered by its relationship with entrenched racism. Indigenous Australians seem to have debugged the entire land system, producing a far better way of life.

If people must eat meat farming kangaroos would enable a move away from all those soil-damaging cloven hooves, but it would mean a new relationship to land which would be out of bounds for most Australians.
posted by unearthed at 8:32 PM on January 6 [6 favorites]


Australia's relationship with bushfire has been deeply hindered by its relationship with entrenched racism. Indigenous Australians seem to have debugged the entire land system, producing a far better way of life.

This is true but I think some of the pushback here is not about a lack of belief in the history and effectiveness of Indigenous land management, but the concern that, what with 200+ years of coloniser control, and huge changes in the climate across that period, it's not as simple as going back to the old ways.

I'm all for that control being taken back by the true owners of the land, but the whole environmental situation has also changed a lot, and the methods of land management may also have to change accordingly.

Not all bushfires are the same, and we're getting worse and different ones which can't necessarily be prevented by fuel reduction, even with the assumption that cultural burning is significantly more effective than the current burn-off practices.
posted by Acid Communist at 9:52 PM on January 6 [13 favorites]


Aboriginal really should be capitalised in this discussion when talking about Australian First Nations people.
posted by chiquitita at 10:21 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


More hazard-reduction burns not the answer, experts warn
Tl;dr:
1) controlled burns are dangerous, and polluting;
2) they're not all that effective, particularly under these intense conditions;
3) we actually do a lot of them anyway, much more than in the past.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:28 PM on January 6 [11 favorites]


> "I believe this was posted on the blue before, but aboriginal society basically survived 120,000 without being exposed to the kind of bushfires we have today."
Not that it discounts the overall argument but … well, it's more like half that; 60,000 years give or take.
> "Australia was managed as a rich and fertile garden, with open grasslands that attracted pasture animals, and not left to be overgrown wild by flammable gum trees..."
Rubbish; that's "magical native" thinking. Sure, they managed the land with fire (amongst other ways) - and that's what created the preponderance of "flammable gum trees"; one of the few long-lived organisms in Australia that survives & in fact often requires fire to thrive & reproduce.
> "I wonder what the ecologist’s objections to the small cool burns were."
Probably none at all, at least from an ecology PoV. It's a throwaway line in an article. Any objections were probably related to timing & resources for monitoring them to ensure they didn't get out of hand and run away.
posted by Pinback at 12:37 AM on January 7 [3 favorites]


As long as it doesn't become weaponised as part of Big Agro arsenal. Cultural slash and burn in oil palm plantations in Indonesia has been attributed to the regional Southeast Asian annual haze, for example.
posted by cendawanita at 3:13 AM on January 7


Joe in Australia, that piece seems to be about the big burns that are currently being done-- small thoughtful burns might play out differently.

That being said, if Australia gets hotter and drier, the conditions needed for cool burning are going to be less common.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:16 AM on January 7


My friends who are members of Australian First Peoples' communities have been talking about this a lot lately. One thing that comes up again and again is that white people are starting to think "oh, we should take this one cultural practice (how to burn) and use it to solve our problems". That's a very colonial approach. We can't just take one part of culture in isolation and twist it to our own ends. Fire practices are deeply embedded in a very complex web of practices, behaviours and discourses around Country and we should seek to understand it all, and take ourselves into that space, rather than taking bits of it out of its context.

Another interesting thing that has come up in these conversations is that white people often discuss these ways of treating fire and bushland as if it's in opposition to 'scientific approaches', when actually 60,000+ years of caring for Country, seeing what works, and refining and iterating these approaches is as scientific a method as anything that settler Australians have come up with.
posted by lollusc at 1:20 PM on January 7 [13 favorites]


and take ourselves into that space

or alternatively, I should say, pass over control of land management to the people who know what they are doing
posted by lollusc at 1:24 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the ecologist’s objections to the small cool burns were.

I cant imagine an actual ecologist being opposed to burning. We are typically the ones pointing out that static landscapes are an illusion.

I'm sure there is also a lot of concern that the fires combined with the extensive drought, heat and land management practices will cause or hasten desertification in some areas. Thats bad, because its hard to imposible to recover productive land once it happens

And btw ancient people were as capable of screwing up a landscape as modern people. Which is why, when one group has found a way to accomodate natural processes amd change into their way of life and agriculture and to do well, we'd all do well to learn from them. Magical thinking or not, the indigenous inhabitants had a lot of time to learn from trial and error and that knowledge is important and shouldn't be lost.
posted by fshgrl at 2:27 PM on January 7 [4 favorites]


And I'd never read about the yam gardens or the aboriginal way of farming. That is fascinating so thanks to whoever posted that! I will have to find more on it.
posted by fshgrl at 2:33 PM on January 7


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