Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Ngadju kala: fire management in woodlands

A new fire management report, lead by CSIRO scientist Dr Suzanne Prober, challenges common beliefs about Aboriginal burning practices in Australia.

Contrary to the common assumption that Aboriginal burning was widespread and frequent (e.g. Bill Gammage's book The Biggest Estate on Earth - see this YouTube video of Bill's view of the role of aboriginal burning), the report shows that the Ngadju community from south-western Australia were highly selective in where they burnt their country. Ngadju country covers a significant part of the region known as the Great Western Woodlands in south-western Australia. This region is nationally and internationally significant for its large, relatively intact expanses of eucalypt woodlands, shrublands, salt lake systems and mallee. When I was there a few years ago, I was blown away by the shear scale of the woodlands, and the beauty of the landscape. It's well-worth putting it on your itinerary when you're in Western Australia.

Ngadju used fire as a cultural tool for looking after rockholes and grassy areas, for protecting important cultural sites and special plants such as water trees, for access and hunting, and for encouraging grasses. The old growth woodlands were rarely burnt deliberately. Large-scale burning was not a common practice.

Some of the report’s key findings include:
  • The extensive old growth woodlands were rarely burnt deliberately, because they take hundreds of years to recover.
  • The extensive sandplain shrublands were only occasionally burnt with planned fire. Mostly they burnt naturally by wildfires that were allowed to take their course.
  • Rather, Ngadju used fire as a cultural tool for keeping the country clear around rockholes, for encouraging grasses in open grasslands and mallee, and to smoke out animals when hunting. These fires were often small, around 1 ha.
  • They also used fire to protect important cultural sites and special plants such as water trees; and to maintain access along walking tracks and in coastal shrublands.
  • Other activities such as firewood collecting around the edges of woodlands and rockholes, and sweeping and scraping up litter around individual trees, were undertaken to help control wildfire.
  • Ultimately these activities would have led to a fine-scale fire mosaic over the top of the natural vegetation mosaic.
The report, written to document Ngadju knowledge about fire in Ngadju country, can be
downloaded at http://www.csiro.au/Outcomes/Environment/Biodiversity/Ngadju-kala.  As a land management tool, fire obviously has a more select role in Ngadju country than in other regions of Australia such as the tropical savannah and spinifex country where large parts of the landscape are frequently burnt. It highlights the importance of interpreting anecdotal historical information about fire and landscape structure (e.g. settler's diaries, paintings, etc) through the lens of local (rather than regional) scale ecological processes.


Anna said...

Hi John.
It's good to see that the nuanced approach of indigenous fire management is being recorded at a local scale.
Are you aware of any other studies of this type, that are based on consultation with the local indigenous community?

Anna Foley
Environmental Heritage Advocate, National Trust of Australia (VIC)

John Morgan said...

Hi Anna - thanks for your comment. There are relatively few examples of this type of approach in southern Australia. None I am aware of at least. This approach is much better developed in the savannah of northern Australia where indigenous fire management is still practiced - JOHN

Ben Courtice said...

Good to see this, and I'm enjoying reading it. Much more nuanced and concrete than Gammage's dangerous generalisations.

I do wonder if the unique character of these SW open forests could be used to argue they are a unique case in fire management: as the study points out, it is unusual to find woodlands such as these in an area of around 250mm or less annual average precipitation. I'd imagine the fuel build up would be much slower than wetter forests, and also much slower than northern savannah.