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Manya Kartla Cold Fire, Cool Burning

Our Songlines is passionate about promoting Indigenous Culture, in these times where Australia is on fire, we need to look to our First Nations people to lead the path to old country. We had a yarn with Dr Jared Thomas and this is what he had to say.

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Image: Lindsay Thomas dealing with fuel load, Southern Flinders Ranges, winter, 2016. Taken by Dr Jared Thomas. 

Dr Jared Thomas, Margaret and William Geary Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Material Culture, South Australian Museum

With unprecedented bushfires ravaging Australia during the summer of 2019-2020 many are asking what could have occurred to prevent the ferocity of the fires, and people are turning their attention to Aboriginal knowledge regarding bushfire mitigation.

With the encouragement of ecologist Faith Coleman, my dad Darryl and my Uncles Lawrie and Lindsay started reintroducing cool burning, a land management practice similar to those implemented by Aboriginal people across the continent. Before trialling cool burns I’d heard about how my people, the Nukunu of the Southern Flinders Ranges, and many other Aboriginal groups managed country with fire. I’d been told that fire, heat and smoke facilitates the germination of particular seeds and can regenerate tracts of land.

Through conducting several cool burns and reflecting on the recent fires, I am now coming to a better understanding of the many of ways that fire assists land management, including lessening bushfires.

In the lead up to the burns there’s deep observation of the tract of land intended to be managed, including the fuel load in the area, it’s density and type, height, the rain fall leading up to the burn, ensuring particular plants are plump with moisture, and the types of plants in the vicinity that naturally release oils. We notify the Country Fire Service and neighbouring property owners when the burn will take place. We take note of humidity, wind direction, speed and ensure we have equipment to put out the fire in case our judgement is wrong.

Our initial intent in conducting cool burns was assisting the health of an outcrop of acacia victoriae (wattle) in an area that had been stocked with sheep. As part of this process, we deliberately stockpiled and burnt excess fuel, knowing that if that fuel load set alight in the summer, it would set all around it ablaze. When the fuel load is ignited during the cooler months the fire spreads slowly and self extinguishes because of the moisture within surrounding plants.

My cousin Travis Thomas has been fighting fires for twenty-three years, including the recent Victorian and Kangaroo Island fires. He says, ‘that when Aboriginal land management practices are used there’s less risk of fires spreading and reaching extreme temperatures, simply because the amount of fuel is eliminated.’

Many of the fires this summer were ignited by lightning strike. It’s evident that Nukunu ancestors implemented cool burns in anticipation of lightning strike, and moved seasonally to reduce chance of getting caught in a place where a fire could get out of control. In the winter they lived in the hills where there’s large river red gums that they shaped to create shelter (shelter trees), and in the spring they moved to the coast where there’s acacia and low lying salt bush, plants that if alight, aren’t near as terrifying as a creek line of river red gums. If a fire did get out of control on the coast, they could retreat to the beach. The existence of shelter trees that are pre-colonial, at least several hundred years old demonstrates that my ancestor’s cool burns worked.

My Uncle Lindsay says, ‘when we did our first burn, we noticed the eaglehawks come in to see what we were doing, and to dive down on prey getting away from the fire. I felt they were pleased with what we were doing, because they were getting a feed and we were looking after country.’

Travis says,

‘cool burns are most important because birds and animals live in habitat at different levels and cool burns ensure different types of vegetation is always available, and in turn the animals help with seed distribution.’

A year after our first cool burn there were many new strong green wattle saplings. What we didn’t anticipate was the rapid increase in biodiversity in the area where we conducted the burn.

Whilst I’ve only conducted a few cool burns, there remain Aboriginal people in this country that are experts in caring for country with fire. The Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation are working alongside some state fire agencies to conduct burns and they conduct cultural burning workshops across Australia with fire authorities, rangers, land councils, and property owners.
Across the Northern Territory and Queensland, NGO The Nature Conservancy is partnering with Aboriginal communities to protect country. Their research demonstrates that fire management in savannas has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This work also includes examination of the optimal conditions and temperatures of cool burns for maintaining biodiversity.

As Australia faces the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and protecting citizens from bushfires, it’s time that the nation seeks guidance from those that have effectively managed their land for tens of thousands of years.


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