Aboriginal Use of Fire


Across the whole of Australia the early settlers and explorers commented in letters and reports that the land looked like a park, with extensive open forests and woodlands, with grassy patches often seemingly arranged in a planned fashion. They also described how they observed aborigines frequently burning patches of bush and were impressed by their skill in handling fire to confine a burn to a set area. Since those early days these park-like forests and woodlands have become choked with understorey shrubs and young trees. The difference is partly the absence of burning by aboriginal people.

While timber harvesting has undoubtedly stimulated regeneration of both tree and shrub species, there is vastly too much of it. The only practical way to thin out this regeneration and return to the park-like condition is by regular low intensity burning.

It is not generally realised that aboriginal people systematically used fire to manage the land to produce the wildlife and plants they needed. Each family group had areas of land strung out along their annual cycle of moving where they used fire to manage the vegetation for the provision of edible plants, or to facilitate the hunting of game or simply to facilitate access. Their management of fire is what produced those parkland-like scenes. Major damaging bushfires did not occur.

And it was not just forests and woodlands that were managed in this way. The same approach was used in virtually every other vegetation type from forest to desert.

This section proves links to some early reports that describe aboriginal activities in those days. For a very comprehensive account of aboriginal use of fire, see Bill Gammage’s book  “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia”. Interviews with Bill Gammage talking about this issue can be seen on this website at Prescribed Burning> Important Video Evidence.

While it is not feasible for us to reproduce the fine mosaic of fuel ages that aboriginal management developed, we can use the same process on a larger scale to ensure that native vegetation fuels do not accumulate to hazardous levels.


Early Settlers Around Sydney

The incidence of fires in the Australian bush was something widely commented upon by settlers as early as the arrival of the First Fleet, as it was so different from what they were used to in Britain.

Click on Resources>Historical Accounts> Fires Around Sydney

Early Settlers in Western Australia

These are a series of letters that demonstrate how the activities of aborigines using fire in their traditional way caused much anxiety among early settlers in Western Australia. They also show how some observers could see that their use of fire was in no way haphazard, but done with skill and deliberate intent.

Click on Resources>Historical Accounts>Letters

Old Letters and Recent Discussions About Fire in WA

These are extracts from letters by public officers and records of recent discussions with Noongar people about historical fire management issues.

Click on Resources>Historical Accounts>A Time Sequence