Aboriginal Fire Management: What is Cool Burning?

Aboriginal Fire Management: What is Cool Burning?

For thousands of years Aboriginals have been using fire to hunt animals, maintain ecosystems and manage the land. In a practice called Cool Burning, often referred to as Cultural Burning, small blazes are set alight to clear the underbrush. This process generates patchy habitats preferred by small animals and prevents lightning and wildfires from consuming the land.

Unfortunately, with centuries of Euro-Australian suppression of Aboriginal people, the practice of Cool Burning has diminished. Early settlers viewed fire as a threat and were unable to perceive of Cool Burning as a landscape-management practice. This has since exacerbated ecosystem degradation and put much of our land at risk of wildfires. The life severe consequences of this shift in land management became apparent during our recent bushfire season, which consumed more than 18.626 million hectares of land and killed 1.25 billion wild animals. There has since been a surge of interest from farmers, landowners and communities wanting to learn about these traditional burning practices and how they could be implemented nationwide.

The Symbolic Meaning of Fire

For most non-Indigenous, urban and even agricultural people, fire is perceived as a destructive force and considered anti-civilisation. However, fire holds great spiritual meaning in Aboriginal culture, with many stories, memories and dance being passed down around the fire. Fire also connects Indigenous people to the land, with children as young as four learning about the healing powers of fire for the land and it’s symbolic significance in Aboriginal culture.

What are Cool Burns?

The central idea of Cool Burns is fire management using a ‘cool’ fire. Night times and early mornings are ideal for these fires as nightly dew helps cool down the fire and the winds are often gentle. The practice involves lighting low fires in small areas on foot, with matches or, traditionally, with fire sticks. These fires are closely monitored, ensuring that only the underbrush is burnt. Cool Burns not only clear areas of land, they also ensure that seeds and nutrients in the soil are not baked and destroyed. In fact, these fires assist in changing vegetation structures by reducing the density of risk factor plants such as Bracken Fern or Casuarina which lead to extreme fuel loads. 


Watch the video below for an explanation of how traditional Indigenous fire practices can heal and protect the landscape.

Featured above: Indigenous fire methods protect land before and after the Tathra bushfire (video) 

Why are Indigenous fire practices important?

There are many environmental and cultural benefits to using Cool Burns for the management of the land. Some of these include:

• Preventing life threatening wildfires
• Rejuvenate local flora and protecting native animal habitats.
• Preserving the tree canopy, which is important for maintaining shade in the bush, protecting vulnerable canopy animals from ground predators, providing a refuge for animals during fire and reducing carbon output (as large canopy fires release mass amounts of carbon into the air).
• Triggering seed germination on the ground which helps hold soil together and provides a source of food for native animals.
• Providing natural medicinal benefit for animals, such as wallaby’s and birds who bathe in cool ash to cleanse themselves to get rid of lice.
• Restoring Aboriginal kinship to the land
• The practice encourages elders to share their knowledge with younger generations. This ensures that the cultural practice grows stronger and gives longevity to not only the land, but the people who rely on it.

In light of our recent catastrophic bushfire season, there has been a national shift in consciousness about land management and bush fire prevention. Integrating Aboriginal fire management practices into our national bushfire response is our only hope for the future. The Watarrka Foundation supports this integration and believes that Aboriginal communities should be supported in their care of ancestral land. We are also passionate about educating younger generations in Aboriginal communities about sustainable environment practices and assisting them to develop leadership skills so that they can show others the way forward.

To support the Foundation and our projects within the Northern Territory, make a donation at www.givenow.com.au/watarrkafoundation


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