Bushfires in Australia – Two Choices


Presented by Viv Forbes On Behalf of The Saltbush Club

Image credit: Pixabay

(Apr. 7, 2020) — The Landscape and wildlife of Australia was shaped and then maintained by frequent mild burning for at least 40,000 years. This reality must be recognised and it dictates that there are only two futures for Australia:

  1. A healthy safe landscape that maintains sustainable vegetation, wildlife and people. This requires that we re-establish the successful fire regimes of the past.


  1. A dangerous and destructive landscape with too many people cowering in suburban and rural enclaves surrounded by a tinderbox of pest-ridden weeds, scrub and litter – a threat to trees, wildlife and property. This is today’s fire regime in Eastern Australia.

Our submission focusses on Bushfires.

It covers the following subjects within the terms of reference listed for the National Royal Commission. The subjects are covered in a logical order but not necessarily in the order listed in the terms of reference:

  1. Responsibilities of Commonwealth, States, Local Governments and Landowners.
  2. The need to adapt to changing climatic conditions.
  3. Increased power and role for the Federal Government
  4. Hazard reduction burning
  5. Wildlife protection in Bushfires
  6. Public Infrastructure
  7. Lessons from Indigenous use of Fire

We have read articles and books by the Bushfire Front, Mr Roger Underwood and Mr Vic Jurskis. We recommend the Commission takes careful note of whatever submissions they make to this enquiry.

The Power of the Torch – Lessons from Aboriginal Australia

“Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in

Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue.”  Thomas Mitchell, explorer, 1848.

“There can be few if any races who for so long were able to practice the delights of incendiarism.”  Geoffrey Blainey “Triumph of the Nomads – A History of Ancient Australia.” Macmillan 1975.

The ability to light fires was the most powerful tool that early humans brought to Australia, some 40,000 years ago.

The aboriginal firestick created the beautiful, diverse, healthy and safe landscape of open forests and grasslands that greeted the First Fleet. Many early settlers and explorers commented on it.

Fires lit by aboriginal men and women were used to create and fertilise fresh new grass for the grazing animals that they hunted, to trap and roast grass-dwelling reptiles and rodents, to fight enemies, to send smoke signals, to fell dead trees for camp fires, to ward off frosts and biting insects, for sanitation and for religious and cultural ceremonies. They created and maintained grasslands and open forests and, over the centuries, gradually extinguished all flora and fauna unable to cope with frequent fires.

Early white explorers and settlers recorded the smoke and the blackened tree trunks. They admired the extensive grasslands, either treeless or with well-spaced trees, and no tangled undergrowth of dead grass, brambles, branches and weeds.

John Gilbert the explorer looked on the Valley of Lagoons in the Burdekin River Valley, North Queensland on 4th May 1845. He wrote in his diary:

“From a hill near our camp, we can see to eastward a broad extent of valley with numerous fine lakes. Smoke from natives’ fires is seen in all directions around us.”

Ludwig Leichhardt made a similar note on the same day.

Recorded by Alec Chisholm (1941) in his book:
“Strange New World – the adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichhardt.”

Watkin Tench (1793) wrote:

“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 of 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.”

Reported in Collins, D. 1798. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1 With Remarks On The Dispositions, Customs, Manners Etc of The Native Inhabitants Of That Country.

These reference and others are reported in:
Jurskis, V. 2015 Firestick Ecology: “Fairdinkum Science in Plain English” Connor Court Pty Ltd.  

Selected members of the tribe were charged with carrying a fire stick and keeping it alight. In really cold weather several members may have each carried a fire stick for warmth. When the stick was in danger of going out, the carrier would usually light a tussock of dry grass or leaves and use that flame to rejuvenate the fire stick (or light a new one). As they moved on, they left a line of small fires spreading behind them. They have been observed trying to control the movement of fires but never tried to extinguish them.

Early explorers who ventured inland were amazed to find extensive grasslands and open woodland. Their reports attracted settlers to these grassy open forests and treeless plains with mobs of cattle and sheep.

Despite modern folk-lore tales about aboriginal fire management skills, anyone reading diaries and reports from early explorers such as Abel Tasman (1642), Captain Cook (1770) and Lasseter soon learned that aboriginals lit fires at any time, for many reasons, and NEVER tried to put them out. If threatened by fires lit by enemies, the most frequent response was to light their own protective fires (now called back-burning). They also used fire to trap or incinerate animals. Fire lighting was deliberate, and sometimes governed by rules related to tribal lands, but there was no central plan. There were no fire-fighters, no 4WD tankers, no water bombers, no dozers, and no attempt to suppress or mop-up bushfires. But aboriginal fire “management” worked.

Because of the high frequency of small fires, fire intensity was low and fires could be lit safely even on hot dry windy summer days. Any fire lit would soon run into country burnt one or two years earlier and then would run out of fuel and self-extinguish. This is now given the catchy name of “patchwork” or “mosaic” burning”, as if the patterns were intentional and planned rather than a product of many frequent small fires.

The early squatters and pastoralists quickly learned about the dangers and benefits of fires, and they learned to better manage fire to protect their assets, grasslands and grazing animals. The settlers had more to lose than the nomads. Graziers need to protect their herds and flocks, homesteads, hay stacks, yards, fences and neighbours, as well as maintaining the grasslands by killing woody weeds and encouraging new grass.

So their fire management was more refined. They soon learned to pick the right season, day, time-of-day, place, wind and weather before lighting a fire. And if threatened by a neighbour’s escaping fire or a lightning-strike fire, back-burning from roads and tracks was their preferred way to protect themselves (often the only way).

The Total Failure of Government Bushfire Policy

Over most of Australia, decentralised practical fire management by aboriginals and settlers has been replaced by centralised control with a green agenda that has created the wildfire menace.

Firstly, governments created hundreds of National Parks, where fire sticks, matches, graziers and foresters were locked out and access roads and fire tracks were abandoned or padlocked. Then, spurred on by climate warriors and misguided tree-lovers, they slapped a patchwork of vegetation “protection” orders on many private landowners. And they made it very difficult for private or local bodies to get permits-to-burn.

Next, urban nature-lovers built houses right beside these parks and prevented, hampered or delayed fuel-reduction burning. They also encouraged the bush to advance to their boundaries and planted flammable native trees in their yards.

Finally, open forests and grasslands were invaded by eucalypt regrowth, woody weeds, lantana, tangled undergrowth, dry grass and dead logs, leaves, twigs, bark and litter – all perfect fuel for a wild-fire holocaust, especially in the wake of a drought.

According to an article in The Weekend Australian 11/1/2020, page 13, CSIRO bushfire expert David Packman, speaking on Sky News, said that fuel loads for fires are 10 times greater than before European settlement and that there is urgent need to reduce fuel loads on the bush floor through control burns (also called “prescribed burning” – or “back-burning” when done in an emergency.)

These widespread tinder-boxes of forest fuel (continuous in 3 dimensions) become magnets for arsonists, and occasionally even disgruntled neighbours, or are lit by wind-blown embers or by dry lightning. With high winds and heavy dry fuel any ignition will explode into firestorms that can race through the tree tops of oil-rich eucalypt forests and burning embers will race far ahead of the main fire. Firebreaks, fire engines, helicopters and water bombers won’t stop them. A change in the weather may allow a respite but the danger will remain until all is burnt.

Read the rest here.

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