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.