What role for Indigenous methods of fire management?

What role may traditional Indigenous methods of fire management have in preventing bushfires, and could they be applied across Australia?

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Can traditional Indigenous methods of fire management help prevent catastrophic bushfires?

That's an argument being raised again, as the bushfire season gets underway.

But there those cautioning that while traditional methods may be useful in some areas, they can't be applied across Australia.

Santilla Chingaipe has more.

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Joe Morrison is the chief executive of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Mr Morrison has told NITV, Indigenous people could play a role in reducing the risk of bushfires.

"We know there's a disconnect between people actively managing fire right around the country and the ability to then suppress it later on. If you're not actively managing it or reducing fuel load then and taking a responsible approach to managing country then you end up with these huge events that are regularly occurring in the south."

Mr Morrison says in the Northern Territory, controlled fires are used to harvest the land and to avoid major bushfires.

And he says these methods could be be used in other parts of the country.

"We've had a situation right around the country for around 100 years where people were moved out of the landscape and fire was seen as a bad thing and I think we just need to return to the days of actively managing fire and seeing fire as a good thing."

That's an argument also supported by Professor Rebecca Bird from Stanford University in the United States.

She's been involved in a research project on the effects of fire in the Western Desert of Central Australia.

"Often it's very difficult for people to accept, especially the role that fire plays in the environment. When we're out on the Canning Stock Route with Aboriginal people, you go and you visit a well and tourists have recorded in the little visitors' booklet that the wells, how upset they are that the country is burnt, how ugly fire is and how horrible it is that things have completely devastated and in that same entry, like six months later, you scroll down and look at the comments that other people are leaving and they're talking about how beautiful the country is. Look at all the wildflowers, look at how gorgeous everything is. Well it's only that beautiful because people have been out there burning and the fire has happened. It's just a way of looking at the landscape that sees fire as something that's cleansing and that a burned area is something that's good and clean will eventually produce all of this gorgeous stuff that it just takes a complete switch of your mindset."

Professor Bird says in the Western Desert, Indigenous people have traditionally used fire as a hunting technique - burning patches of bush, to help them catch goannas as they escape the flames.

And she says her research has shown that paradoxically, this actually helps to maintain goanna and other species.

The professor says that's because patch burning doesn't leave large areas of unburnt bush that could all go up in smoke in one massive fire, destroying all the wildlife.

"People often have this perception that Aboriginal people are burning therefore they must be burning more than would naturally be the case. But in fact our research has shown that they actually burn less country than lighting does. If you leave country alone to be dominated by lightning fires, almost everything is burnt or everything is unburnt. It's either all burnt or very little is burnt. With people they are able to interfere in this and create greater patchiness which actually preserves a lot of the mature vegetation from being burnt and it's this mature vegetation that's really important for a lot of species and evidently it's very important for sand goannas. They seem to do better in the kind of environment where people are actively burning on the landscape as opposed to an environment where people are completely absent."

David Bowman is a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania.

Professor Bowman agrees Indigenous knowledge of fires can play a role in fire management.

But he says that doesn't mean traditional methods would solve the problem of bushfires.

"A lot of people have drawn a simplistic conclusion that all you've got to do is go back and basically get Aborigines and virtually grab them from northern Australia and get them to go and do fire management in southern Australia and hang on hang on, it's not that easy, because in southern Australia forests are much more flammable than the northern savannahs, they burn less frequently. When they do burn, then they can burn very intensively and even if you could reapply or rediscover Aboriginal fire management in southern Australia, there's an additional confounding factor, namely the fragmentation of the habitats."

Professor David Lindenmayer from the Australia National University, agrees.

"I think it sounds like a great idea in theory. But the reality is that these things are significantly more complex than that and there are a number of reasons for that and that is that almost every Indigenous group of people in the country, and there were well over 300, had different burning practices in different parts of the country at different times of the year. In fact there are even significant differences between the way Aboriginal men burnt the land relative to what Aboriginal women did when they burnt the land, because they were burning for different reasons to produce food or to stimulate populations of target animals that they wanted to hunt. And obviously now, 2013 is not what it was like 300 years ago, or 3,000 years ago or 30,000 years ago."

But Professor Lindenmayer says, Indigenous people can still play a role in managing modern bushfires.

"There's a huge amount to learn from the original inhabitants of this country who managed it in an ecologically sustainable way for 30, 40, 50, 60 thousand years, perhaps even longer. They have an enormous amount of knowledge about a huge range of things in very significant ways that we only have a limited understanding of and I think there is a lot to be learnt from people like that who have lived here for so long who have a lot of knowledge."

Professor David Bowman from the University of Tasmania says the challenge is to combine traditional methods with modern technology to find ways of preventing catastrophic bushfires.

"The thing that I think is most important is that it shows that human beings can co-exist with a highly flammable environment. Our challenge, with infrastructure and climate change, is to devise new ways which will be different but still inspired from the principle that human beings and flammable landscapes can exist harmoniously."

Source World News Australia

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