When Aboriginal Burning Practices Meet Colonial Legacies in Australia

Fire burning through dead grass and smoke rising up.

I heard the satisfying crackling sound and caught the scent of smoke as the burning fire spread through the dead grass. It was the early dry season of 2018, and I was attending my first burn in Cape York in far northeast Australia with the Aboriginal Lama Lama rangers.

The Lama Lama rangers are a land management group, caring for their homelands across a variety of different tenure types. On this day, they were undertaking a “cool burn” to “clean up” the country after the excess vegetal growth following northern Australia’s monsoon.

The rangers stood by a fence between a cattle station and a national park, holding drip torches, lighters, and matchboxes. My supervisor, a ranger in her late thirties, showed me how to burn the dead grass by bundling it and lighting it at the base of the clump. She told me that she first learned to burn from her grandparents while they worked on cattle stations.

The fires trickled away from us through the grass, licking at the bases of trees but leaving them intact. We walked along the fence line, observing the progress of the burn and monitoring for spot fires. We watched until the fire traveled around ten meters from the fence line and into the national park.

Burned grass on the ground in landscape filled with trees.
Early dry season burning on Lama Lama country. Photo by the author, 2018.

In the Australian summer of 2019 to 2020, devastating bushfires swept across the southeastern part of the continent. The fires resulted in the loss of forests and infrastructure, cities blanketed in smoke, and generation of new weather systems. These environmental impacts were accompanied by large-scale evacuations. The media featured haunting images of terrified people huddling on a beach and hoping for rescue under a blood-red sky. Southern Australia experienced the worst bushfires in recorded history that summer, leaving 33 humans and an estimated 3 billion native animals dead.

The disaster was caused by extreme El Niño summer temperatures and years of drought that turned forests into kindle. In the wake of the fires, Aboriginal burning regimes captured attention both in and outside the academy, as a possible route to avoid such disasters. Some refer to this knowledge as “traditional,” but the term glosses over the complex lineage through which Indigenous knowledge is circulated between different individuals, groups, and institutions.

The Origins of Burning Regimes

Prior to the violent colonization of the continent over the last 250 years, Indigenous people in Australia regularly fired the landscape for millennia. These fire regimes have resulted in a humanized and culturalized landscape, as ecosystems across Australia have become fire-resistant and fire-adapted. Many plant species are accustomed to fire, with some now reliant on regular burning to seed and regenerate. Over time, Indigenous land management has shaped species distribution and co-constructed the ecosystems that European colonizers read as “natural.”

Shared contemporary burning practices are the result of the intercultural co-creation of environmental knowledge.

Aboriginal people in Cape York and elsewhere conceptualize burning as an important cultural activity to “clean up” or look after country. People engage in mosaic burning and burn small sections of land every three years, permitting the land to rest in the intervening years. Areas that have not burned for a period of years are often perceived as neglected. Fire-responsive and fire-reliant vegetation has declined in regions where settlers have significantly interrupted Aboriginal burning regimes.

The ongoing process of colonization has transformed the material environment through tree clearing, introduction of non-native plant and animal species, and the interruption of fire regimes. It has also impacted the transmission of environmental (and other) knowledges in Aboriginal communities.

A red dirt road with green trees in the distance and grey smoke above.
Smoke from a wildfire fills the sky over Rinyirru National Park. Photo by the author. 2020.

While colonization put an end to burning regimes in Australia’s densely populated southern states, the continent’s tropical north was colonized later and to a different extent. Due to the inhospitable climate and challenging geography, European settlers could not penetrate the northern region including Cape York until the late nineteenth century. Cape York remains sparsely populated and is widely touted as a “wilderness” space; in reality, its ecology is due to years of Aboriginal labor and tending.

Cape York currently has a fire-adapted landscape because of the continuity in Aboriginal peoples’ burning practices. Contemporary Cape York Aboriginal people emphasize the way that the “old people,” their ancestors, would burn country, highlighting the long history of fire management in Cape York. As in the rest of Australia, burning is a deeply cultural activity that allows connections with dead ancestors. Today, a diverse range of land managers in the region engage in fire management.  

Even in a place like Cape York where fire regimes have continued from pre-colonization to the present, fire knowledge has shifted a lot. Further transformations are likely due to the changing climate and spread of invasive species. Importantly, in contemporary Cape York, it’s not just Aboriginal people who burn. A variety of land managers in the region use fire to achieve different desired outcomes.

Cool Burns

While Aboriginal people burn to “clean up” the country and enact care for ancestral spirits, cattle grazers also burn for both fuel reduction and as a cattle management tool. Early dry season burning is conceptualized as “cool” because at this time of year, only some vegetation has cured enough to be flammable and, as such, the fires do not burn with the same heat and intensity as those which may occur late in the dry season, after months of drought-like conditions.

These cool fires—such as the one I described above—encourage the growth of fresh shoots of grass. This draws cattle into specific areas, making it easier for graziers to locate their cattle across vast pastoral leases. Both Aboriginal corporations and settler cattle graziers are financially rewarded for their cool burns through the northern Australia savanna burning carbon sequestration program.

National parks rangers also practice burning to avoid larger, out-of-control fires late in the dry season when the landscape has dried out. Fires can begin on the eastern side of Cape York Peninsula and burn, unabated, all the way to the west coast, a distance of around 260 miles at the peninsula’s widest point. National parks rangers are concerned about protecting infrastructure and cultural heritage sites, along with the carbon emissions that such large fires generate.

A person in a white shirt and green pants stands and watches fire burning through landscape with trees in the background.
A National Parks ranger monitors a wildfire. Photo by the author, 2020.

While there are important overlaps between these burning regimes and their origins in pre-colonial Aboriginal fire management, the contemporary knowledge employed by Aboriginal rangers and other land managers has not necessarily been passed down in a linear trajectory from older, experienced people to younger people. Instead, the route of knowledge transmission is more complex and affected by the impacts of colonial expansion into the region.

Knowledge Sharing in the Pastoral Industry

While Aboriginal people have inhabited Cape York for an estimated 37,000 years, European settlers arrived in the late nineteenth century, initially to mine gold and later to take up pastoral leases and run cattle. The introduction of agro-industry violently transformed the lives of Indigenous peoples in Cape York, excluding people from their land and curtailing their ability to access resources.

The cattle grazing industry remained dominant through most of the twentieth century. Cattle stations employed displaced Aboriginal people as stockworkers or domestic servants (albeit for no or low wages).

The term “traditional” glosses over the complex lineage through which Indigenous knowledge is circulated between different individuals, groups, and institutions.

In this context, settler cattle grazers gained important knowledge from Aboriginal workers about how to manage the land. Despite creating inequality and violence, the grazing industry did allow some Aboriginal people to continue to work on, live on, and fire their homelands, maintaining a thread of continuity. Indeed, as a local natural resource management practitioner told me, the way that graziers burn today is “very similar to what we think was happening 200 years ago.” This highlights the confluence in burning practices between pre-colonization fire regimes and those used by contemporary cattle graziers.

Contemporary Intercultural Burning

The “traditional” style of burning—lighting grass by hand—remains a key part of contemporary fire regimes in Cape York. However, other methods for burning have also been embraced.

In particular, many Aboriginal land management groups receive assistance from the local government to engage in aerial burning, which involves dropping small incendiary devices from a helicopter. This allows land managers to burn across a much broader swathe of country. Burning a larger part of the landscape makes their engagement in the carbon sequestration project more lucrative.

National parks design their fire management plans based on the practices of neighboring cattle stations and the wishes of Aboriginal traditional owners. Many Aboriginal people are now employed as rangers in the so-called “green collar” industries. Whether employed by Aboriginal corporations or the Australian government through national parks, rangers are required to undertake a formal, nationally recognized fire-management course. This course teaches rangers how to perform controlled burns and imparts safety information about fighting bushfires.

On a ranger training day I attended, the practitioner frequently deferred to the pre-existing knowledge of the Aboriginal people present. He admitted that what he was teaching was likely “old news” to many. In Cape York, the route that fire knowledge takes is not straightforward. Originating with Aboriginal people pre-colonization, such knowledge was reimagined and repurposed for cattle grazing and, later, national parks. In this intercultural context, to think of such knowledge as “traditional” is, perhaps, too simplistic.

A person in yellow clothes stands by a truck and hoses down the ground with water.
A Rinyirru Aboriginal Corporation ranger extinguishes a spot fire during a controlled burn in a National Park. Photo by the author, 2018.

There is danger in delimiting some land management techniques as “traditional” and others as less so. Asking Indigenous peoples to use pre-colonization tools and technologies to access resources and care for landscapes is highly problematic. It serves to fix Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples in a temporally distant past, framing them as pre-modern and primordial. Such a framing relies on the trope of the “noble savage” and situates Indigenous peoples and knowledges as “fundamental and exceptional.” This means that when Indigenous people engage in the market economy and broader society, they are perceived as less “traditional,” less “authentic,” and a threat to environmental values.

Fire knowledge has been employed, adjusted, and adapted for use on cattle stations, in national parks, and to reduce the Australian state’s net carbon emissions through the carbon sequestration program. In Cape York, it is now difficult and, indeed, counterproductive to try and demarcate different forms of fire management. Fire knowledge has not remained static. The shared contemporary burning practices I have described are the result of the intercultural co-creation of environmental knowledge.

Fire knowledge, like other Aboriginal ecological knowledges, is continually transforming and adapting to new information and realities.

Featured Image: Controlled burn during a training day for fire practitioners. Photo by the author, 2018.

Dr. Mardi Reardon-Smith (she/her) is an environmental anthropologist, currently employed as a research fellow at Deakin University, Australia. Her research interests include the co-production of environmental knowledges and values, Indigenous-settler relations, visual anthropology, and more-than-human anthropology. She has published in anthropology and interdisciplinary journals about land management in far northeast Australia and produced a sensory ethnography film. She is currently working on her first book about conservation regimes in Cape York. Contact.