1. Ngunnawal Country

1.3 Aboriginal fire management

For thousands of years, Aboriginal people managed the Australian landscape, its biodiversity, species, and food production. Cultural, cool burns (firestick farming) were an important part of their approach. For many reasons, Aboriginal people made frequent and planned use of fire. Burning kept Country more open and easy to travel through, and encouraged growth of grass and herbs that attracted animals. Fire was also a way of signalling, hunting, cooking, and providing warmth. It cleared heavy bush areas and formed barriers to protect important food plants.

Ranger, Adrian Brown, lights a fire for a cultural burn. Photo: ABC News

When Europeans arrived in Australia, they ignored these ways of managing the environment. The absence of Indigenous firestick farming in the cooler months is now one of the reasons that fuel builds up, creating the conditions for more intense bushfires.

Since 2015, the ACT Parks and Conservation Service has helped the community to reintroduce traditional land management through cultural burning. Songlines (which hold the unique knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, telling of the law, history and culture of diverse groups) and cultural stories transfer knowledge between generations. They are a vital part of how cultural burns are managed. Cultural knowledge also protects the ‘spirit’ of Country and community health and wellbeing.

Indigenous communities have different fire-starting and burning methods depending on the landscape, season and the type of vegetation present. The knowledge required to effectively manage burning is based on thousands of years of observations, reflections, and planning, and has been communicated through story, Songlines and cultural activities.

Cultural burning is increasingly being used in southern Australia. Managing small fires in the cooler months is far better for the environment than uncontrolled severe fires during summer, and improves ecosystem health and biodiversity. Cultural burning can also reduce the greenhouse gases associated with uncontrolled bushfires.

Cultural burning on Country. Photo: ACT Parks and Conservation Service.