Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, Custodian of the land Minjerribah, Peace Prosperity and Healing, Sacred Treaty Circles

Fire is an intrinsic feature of the Australian bush

Posted in Aboriginal, Australia, ecology, history, indigenous by John T. on February 10, 2009

by Germaine Greer

from Times Online

“For 40 or maybe 60 millennia, Aboriginal peoples managed fire proactively, setting alight woodland, scrubland and grassland, so that they could pass freely, so that game was driven towards them, so that fresh green herbage was available. Aboriginal languages have dozens of words for fire. As the Endeavour sailed up the eastern coast, Captain Cook noted that the skies were darkened with smoke by day and lit up by fire at night.”

“The cause of these disasters is not global warming; still less is it arson. It is the failure to recognise that fire is an intrinsic feature of eucalypt bushland. It cannot be prevented but it can and should be managed.”

Fire is an essential element in the life cycle of Australian forests. Season by season sclerophyll or “hard-leaved” woodlands build up huge amounts of detritus, shed leaves, bark and twiggery, which must burn if there is to be new growth. Many Australian species, including most of the eucalypts, need fire if they are to complete their reproductive cycle. Seeds encased in woody receptacles need their capsules to be split by fire before they can be released to germinate.

For 40 or maybe 60 millennia, Aboriginal peoples managed fire proactively, setting alight woodland, scrubland and grassland, so that they could pass freely, so that game was driven towards them, so that fresh green herbage was available. Aboriginal languages have dozens of words for fire. As the Endeavour sailed up the eastern coast, Captain Cook noted that the skies were darkened with smoke by day and lit up by fire at night.

In the national parks of Australia, the importance of regular burning is well understood. Elsewhere the emphasis has been on prevention. Attempting to prevent fire in most of Australia is simply postponing the inevitable. Bushland that is not burnt regularly turns into a powder keg, as the fuel load inexorably increases. When dry eucalypt woodland goes up, it explodes, turning into a veritable firestorm. If no wind is blowing, it creates its own wind.

The Australian governments, state and federal, are well aware of the cost of fire to the economy. People who want to build houses in sclerophyll woodland will be told that any space between the floor of the house and the ground must be sealed, and even that they have to clear the native vegetation for a radius of as much as 50 metres from the house walls. At the same time people in the most desirable seaside suburbs will be prevented by law from clearing native vegetation. Some of the most valuable real estate in Victoria is bordered by beachfront reserves that are an endless succession of thickets choked with tinder-dry dead wood.

The most disheartening aspect of the Kinglake disaster is that since its foundation in the 1880s the township has suffered regular bushfires, in 1926, in 1939, in the 1960s, in the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983; two years ago almost to the day 1,500 hectares were destroyed by fire, but nothing was learnt. The cause of these disasters is not global warming; still less is it arson. It is the failure to recognise that fire is an intrinsic feature of eucalypt bushland. It cannot be prevented but it can and should be managed. Unless there is a fundamental change of policy across all levels of government in Australia, there will be more and worse fires and more deaths.

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