Fires Around Sydney


Fires Around Sydney


By David Ryan

In an interview a week or so back on the ABC TV Dr Tim Flannery from the Adelaide Museum stated that there were records of very hot weather in the Sydney area soon after European settlement, with statements about birds falling out of the sky, overcome by the heat, but there was no evidence of fires.

Well, the reference to birds falling from the sky is from John Hunter’s book – see below.  Anyone who has read the early journals, letters and books would know of the references to fires and aboriginal burning and that fire were very evident (the John Hunter statement that 12-2-1791 was so extraordinary hot that 20,000 flying foxes dropped (from their roost trees?) into the fresh water section of the Parramatta River and tainted the water for several days is of interest).

As can be seen from the extracts, the evidence for wide spread aboriginal burning is from many sources.  However, there is really no evidence that the aboriginies were ecologically sensitive – they apparently were just trying to maximise their food supply or make life easier.  Similar references can be obtained from most regions of the country


Some extracts from early Sydney writings:

John White, 1st Fleet Surgeon, on the 25-4-1788 west of the Parramatta area the realisation that nearly all the countryside was burnt almost annually:

“Near this we saw a tree in flames, without the least appearance or any native; from which we suspected that it had been set on fire by lightning.  This circumstance was first suggested by Lieutenant Ball, who had remarked, as well as myself, that every part of the country, through the most inaccessible and rocky, appeared as if, at certain times of the year, it had been all on fire.  Indeed in many parts we met with very large trees the trunks of which and branches were evidently rent, and demolished by lightning.”

Governor Phillip wrote regularly to Lord Sydney, the Colonial Secretary.  During 1788:

“…and they [the aborigines] are seldom seen without fire, or a piece of wood on fire, which they carry with them from place to place, and in their canoes…”


“The natives always make their fire, if not before their own huts, at the root of a gum-tree, which burns very freely and they never put a fire out when they leave the place”

and on the 9th July while travelling between Botany Bay and Port Jackson:

“… we saw smoke on the top of Landsdown Hills [the southern part of the Blue Mountains], so I think there cannot be any doubt of there being inhabitants fifty mile inland.”

It was not a very good situation for pigs.  On the 12-2-1790:

“My intention of turning swine into the woods to breed have been prevented by the natives so frequently setting fire to the country.”

During September 1790:

“The weather now being very dry, the natives were employed in burning the grass on the north shore opposite Sydney, in order to catch rats and other animals, whilst the women were employed in fishing:  this is their constant practice in dry weather.”

and on 16-11-91:

“The natives so very frequently setting the country on fire, is I apprehend the reason we find so little timber that is sound.”

So it was quickly realised that the country-side was regularly, probably almost annually burnt and that such burning was carried out by the aborigines, who carried fire sticks at all times, set fire to land when ever conditions were dry and/or windy, summer or winter, and apparently never put a fire out.

Captain John Hunter, Captain of the Sirius, in 1788 had similar stories to tell:

“…they also [the aborigines], when in considerable numbers, set the country on fire for several miles extent;  this, we have generally understood, is for the purpose of disturbing such animals as may be within reach of the conflagration;  and thereby have an opportunity of killing many. We have also had much reason to believe, that those fires were intended to clear that part of the country through which they have frequent occasion to travel;  of the brush and underwood, from which they, being naked, suffer very great inconvenience.  The fires, which we very frequently saw, particularly in the summer-time, account also for an appearance, which, when we arrived here, we were much perplexed to understand the cause of;  this was, that two-thirds of the trees in the woods were very mush scorched with fire, some were burnt quite black, up to the very top;  as to the cause of this appearance we differed much in our opinions;  but it is now plain, that it has ever been occasioned by the fires, which the natives so frequently make, and which we have seen reach the highest branches of the trees:  we sometimes, upon our arrival here, conjecture that it proceeded from lightning, but upon looking further, it appeared too general amongst the woods to have been occasioned by such an accident.”

The aborigines did not burn only in summer.  During July 1788 Hunter noted:

“Large fires were frequently seen in this season upon some of the hills, and we had been much at a loss to know for what purpose they were so frequently lighted, at this time of the year;… we then conjectured that these fires were made for the purpose of clearing the ground of the shrub and underwood, by which means they might with greater ease get at those roots which appear to be the greater part of their subsistence during the winter.  We had observed that they generally took advantage of windy weather for making such fires, which would of course occasion their spreading over a greater extent of ground.”

In summer, during February 1791:

“The weather was close and sultry, and the natives having fired the country for several miles around, the wind, which blew strong on the 12th, was heated to a very extraordinary degree, particularly at Rose-Hill [Parramatta], where the country was on fire for several miles to the northward and southward.  Great numbers of parroquets were picked up under the trees, and the bats, which had been frequently flying about Rose-Hill soon after the evening closed in, and were supposed to go to the southward every night, and return to the northward before the day broke, now appeared in immense numbers:  thousands of them were hanging in the branches of the trees, and many dropped down, unable to bear the burning winds.

The head of the bat strongly resembles that of a fox…  From the numbers which fell into the brook at Rose-Hill [the fresh water section of the Parramatta River], the water was tainted for several days, and it was supposed that twenty thousand of them were seen within the space of one mile.”

and again during winter [it was considered that the burning affected/increased the temperature!!]

“Early in the morning of the 31st of August, [1791] the wind was northerly, and heated as though it came from the mouth of an oven, though no fires could then be seen; however, as the day advanced, smoke appeared over the hills, and in the evening, a considerable track of country was seen to be on fire; some natives were likewise burning the ground on the north side of the harbour, opposite the settlement:  this firing of the country, which the natives constantly do when the weather is dry, renders any observation made by the thermometer very uncertain.”

A few years later Hunter concluded that something had to be done about the fire situation – a fuel management proposal.  In a letter in 1798, to the Duke of Portland:

“…it occurs to me that it will be proper to oblige all persons holding farms adjoining to the waste and uncultivated lands to keep plowed up so much thereof, between the cultivated parts and the waste, as shall be judged sufficient to stop the progress of the fire from the latter.  It will also be highly proper to take the same precautions with regard to all lands belonging to the Crown, and, in addition thereto, to make a wide trench or ditch where the situation will allow of it.”

A regulation of October 15th, 1801:

“No person whatever is to set fire to any Stubble without giving his neighbours sufficient notice, and not then until every person is prepared by having their wheat stacks secured.  Should any person neglect this necessary Regulation and any Property be destroyed thereby they will on conviction, be obliged to make good all losses sustained by such neglect.” and “No persons whatever are to smoke Pipes or light fires near any Wheat Stacks Public or Private.”

George Bouchier Worgon, First Fleet surgeon (Sirius), giving further evidence of regular burning and utilising windy conditions, recorded early in 1788:

“It is something singular, that all of this kind of Trees, and many others appear to have been partly burnt, the Bark of them being like charcoal”

Also, at North Head in 1788 (on the 28 May !)

“… returning we made a circuit over to part of the hill where we observed a great fire.  We found it to be burning of healthy brushwood, which we suppose the natives had set on fire for some purpose, but we could not conjecture.  We observe likewise fires of this nature in several other parts of the country.”

He added:

“The wind was blowing very fresh today and perhaps this might favour their designs… Indeed we have remarked that, whenever the wind blows strong, there are a number of these kinds of fires about the country.”

David Collins (Judge Advocate) during December 1792:

“Two days after the wheat had been reaped, and got off the ground at Toongabbe, the whole of the stubble was burnt.  The day on which this happened had been unusually hot, and the country was every where on fire.  Had it befallen us while the wheat was upon the ground, nothing could have saved the whole from being destroyed.”

Urban interface problems in 1792!:

“The weather during this month was very hot.  The 5th [December] was a day most excessively sultry.  The wind blew strong from the northward of west; the country, to add to the intense heat of the atmosphere, was every where on fire.  At Sydney, the grass at the back of the hill on the west side of the cove, having either been caught or been set on fire by the natives, the flames, aided by the wind which at time blew violently, spread and raged with incredible fury. One house was burnt down, several gardens with their fences were destroyed; and the whole face of the hill was on fire, threatening every thatched hut with destruction… At Parramatta and Toongabbie also the heat was extreme; the country there too was every where in flames.”

During February 1797:

“Some heavy rain fell during the first and latter parts of the month, which it was hoped would extinguish the still glowing embers or the vast fires which had surrounded the place, and which, being scattered over the country every dry and windy day, occasioned new and dreadful conflagrations.”

and again during December 1798 (Annual bush fire warnings have a long history in the State):

“…and the country, as happened generally at this season of the year, [was] every where on fire, those who were engaged in farming were reminded of the necessity of their exerting themselves by every practicable means to secure their crops… against accident by fire.”

But in January 1799:

“The country was now in flames; the wind northerly and parching;  and some showers of rain, which fell on the 7th, were of no advantage, being immediately taken up again by the excessive heat of the sun.”

and by February:

“The woods between Sydney and Parramatta were completely on fire, the trees being burnt to the tops, and every blade of grass was destroyed.”

Watkin Tench (Captain of Marines) noted how it all started:

“Their method of procuring fire is this:  They take a reed, and shave one side of the surface flat; in this they make a small incision to reach the pith, and introducing a stick, purposely blunted at the end, into it, turn it round between the hands (as Chocolate is milled) as swiftly as possible, until flame be produced.  As this operation is not only laborious, but the effect tedious, they frequently relieve each other at the exercise.  And to avoid being often reduced to the necessity of putting it in practice, they always, if possible, carry a lighted stick with them, whether in their canoes or moving from place to place on land.”

And the Aborigines stoked their lighted sticks to keep them burning as they moved from place to place.  Every small group had a fire stick, often carried in a bark vessel in the crook of the left arm of the most important female, which was rekindled at short intervals by starting a fire. Thousands upon thousands of fires were lit daily across the whole country.  None were put out and hence, when conditions allowed, large areas were burnt.