Aboriginal Use of Fire: Implications for Today’s Bushfire and Land Managers

Main Club, 3rd June 2022

Our speaker was Bernie Masters, president of the Busselton Naturalists’ Club for the last 40 years. Bernie is a biologist and geologist who has worked in environmental assessment and mine site rehabilitation for many years and has had personal experience with fire management.

Bernie pointed out that catastrophic bushfires have always been a feature of the Australian bush. There is general agreement, he says, that reducing the fuel load in forests by some controlled burning is the best way to reduce the risk of dangerous fires, but opinions on the methods and extent vary widely. Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), for example, wants to “burn everything”. But he believes that traditional Aboriginal methods are preferable and should be copied.

Bernie then showed us evidence of traditional Aboriginal use of fire and its effects on the landscape. For example, early photos of the Ludlow Tuart Forest showed mature trees with no undergrowth except grass.

An early painting of an area near Lake Seppings at Albany showed islands of shrubby vegetation surrounded by grassland.

Aboriginal people used fire for cooking, warming, ceremonies and hunting and to stimulate the growth of plants for food resources. They burnt small patches, resulting in a patchwork of bush and grassland, ideal for hunting kangaroos and reducing the chance of catastrophic bushfires. They only burnt where they had a reason to burn – not in coastal dunes or karri forests, for example.

Fire and Hearth by anthropologist Sylvia Hallam is full of evidence of Aboriginal use of fire in WA, with quotes from explorers and early settlers confirming that the Aboriginals deliberately burnt the bush to produce a mosaic pattern with a park-like appearance. They did this with dexterity by lighting small, manageable fires frequently and without burning the canopy. There is evidence that areas were burnt every 3 to 4 years and that grass or forbs existed in many places where there are now shrubs.

The current “Prescribed Burning” regime by DBCA involves dropping incendiaries, and almost everything is burnt. At our meeting in August last year, we heard from Kingsley Dixon that this strategy is harmful and counterproductive and must be changed. Bernie agrees and says that we should mimic Aboriginal techniques instead. He describes two methods currently being trialled. One is the Soft Edge Mosaic method, where the boundary strip is burnt first, followed by dropping incendiaries into the damp ground to produce a mosaic of small fires. Then after five years, it is done again so that the remaining areas burn. The other is the SW Cultural Burning Project, in which three Aboriginal corporations have the grant to train people to implement traditional burns. However, this is a learning process, and it will be some time before it can be widely implemented. Meanwhile, prescribed burning may have to continue.

Mike Gregson

Lithograph showing Lake Seppings, Albany.
Views Of Western Australia, “Nouvelle Hollande” From The “Astrolabe” Journey.
After Louis-Auguste de Sainson, 1801–1887 French. plate 15