SO much of Australia is needlessly and brutally incinerated every summer. News reports focus on homes and lives and the brave fire crews. But, what about the native fauna and flora? It wasn’t always this way, and it shouldn’t be so. As West Australian David Ward explains…
“BEFORE Europeans arrived, Noongar people managed our south-west dry forests and woodlands very well without fire trucks, water bombers, helicopters, television journalists, concerned politicians, the Conservation Council, hundreds of firefighters, or the Salvation Army to give them all breakfast. They did this by burning frequently, in most places as often as it would carry a mild, creeping fire.
Even where there were no Noongars, most of the bush would have burnt frequently by unimpeded lightning fires, trickling on for months. Such large lightning fires continued up to the 1920s, before there were any Bushfire Brigades. They could travel a hundred kilometres before autumn rain doused them. Most of the landscape would have burnt as often as it could carry a fire. Fire suppression and exclusion are unnatural, new fangled notions.
Frequent fire made the bush safe, and promoted grass for yonka (kangaroo), and a host of bush tucker plants. It produced byoo, the red fruit of the djiridji, or zamia. Frequent light smoke germinated seeds, and provoked flowering of kangaroo paws and balga grass trees.
Kangaroo paws and byoo are increasingly rare, under a muddle headed advocacy which claims that we should exclude fire from large bush areas for long periods. This phoney idea makes the bush very dangerous, as we have recently seen. Fire cannot be excluded indefinitely, and the longer it has been absent, the fiercer, and more damaging it will be.
Ecomythologists claim that, left alone, the litter will all rot down to enrich the soil. The truth, as any Perth Hills resident will testify, is that there is some decay in winter, but the summer blizzard of dead leaves, bark, and capsules is far greater, so litter builds up. After twenty years or so, there is a mulching effect, and build up ceases. However, by then most wildflowers are smothered and straggly, and most of the nutrient is locked up in dead matter. Frequent, mild fire releases the nutrients, sweetens the soil, and prunes the plants. Gardeners will appreciate that.
In the 1840s, the early West Australian botanist James Drummond wrote, “When I was a sojourner in England, I never remember to have seen Australian plants in a good state after the second or third years and that, I think, is in a great degree owing to their not being cut down close to the ground when they begin to get ragged; how for the pruning knife and a mixture of wood ashes in the soil would answer as a substitute to the triennial or quaternal burnings they undergo in their native land, I am unable to say, some of our plants never flower in perfection but the season after the ground is burned over…”
There are many historical references to frequent, widespread burning by south-west Noongars. In 1837 Lt. Henry Bunbury mentioned “…the periodical extensive bush fires which, by destroying every two to three years the dead leaves, plants, sticks, fallen timber etc. prevent most effectually the accumulation of any decayed vegetable deposit… being the last month of summer… the Natives have burnt with fire much of the country… ”
In 1975 Mr. Frank Thompson was interviewed about his memories of fire near the south coast, before the First World War. He said “You see, the Natives …they used to burn the country every three or four years… when it was burnt the grass grew and it was nice and fresh and the possums had something to live on and the kangaroos had something to live on and the wallabies and the tamars and boodie rat …It didn’t burn very fast because it was only grass and a few leaves here and there and it would burn ahead and… sometimes there’d be a little isolated patch of other stuff that wasn’t good enough to burn the time before, but as it burnt along perhaps there might be some wallabies or tamers. Those animals didn’t run away from fire, they’d run up to it and you’d see them hopping along the edge of the fire until they saw a place where the fire wasn’t burning very fierce…”
It is hard to imagine wallabies hopping along the flame front of the recent Karagullen fire, looking for a way through. Long fire exclusion is causing fires of unprecedented ferocity, and many avoidable wildlife deaths. The longer fire has been excluded, the longer the bush takes to recover when it is eventually, and inevitably, burnt.
Over the last decade, research in south-western Australia by the Department of Conservation & Land Management (CALM) and Curtin University into fire marks on hundreds of balga grasstrees has confirmed traditional two to four year fire in dry eucalypt areas. Ridges with pure jarrah burnt every three to four years, slopes with some marri every two to three years, and clay valleys with wandoo every two years. There would have been thousands of small refuges, in rocks or near creeks, which would have burnt less often, perhaps never. Recent fierce fires destroy these, and the fire sensitive plants they protect. The ecomythology of long fire exclusion over large areas, is destroying the very plants and animals it claims to care for. Equally guilty are those ‘talking heads’ in politics, and the news media, who unthinkingly promote ecomythology.
The oldest balga records go back to 1750, and show traditional frequent, mild fire until measles epidemics killed many Noongars in 1860, and 1883. In some places two to four year burning continued until the First World War. In others, it continued up to the 1930s, and even the 1950s. Some old Perth Hills families remember when any fire could be put out with wet bags or green branches. This is only possible when fires are in litter no more than four years old, with flames less than a metre high.
Far from destroying diversity, this frequent burning enhanced it, by creating a rich mosaic of different aged patches. Animals had both food and shelter, and wildflowers flourished. Today’s muddle headed blanket fire exclusion leads to an eventual single, blanket, fierce fire, which simplifies the ecosystem down to a single age.
By insisting, through our political representatives, that CALM burn the bush more often, and more patchily, we will make it safer, see more wildflowers, avoid most animal deaths, and avoid dense, choking smoke from fierce wildfires. We will have to live with occasional light smoke from prescribed burns. If most litter were less than five years old, smoke would be minimal, and arson would be futile. All it could cause would be a mild, creeping fire, which would benefit the bush.
Think of the savings and benefits by working with nature, instead of fighting it. No more squadrons of aircraft, anxious home owners, and choking smoke for a week or more. The police could get on with catching burglars. More young Noongar people should be employed by CALM to help manage the bush with fire, restoring their culture and healing their self esteem.”
Since David Ward shared that article with us in April 2005, historian Bill Gammage has published his book ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ in which he explains in more detail how the South West of WA was managed intensively and systematically through fire-stick farming and that a similar philosophy once extended to the management of the entire Australian continent.
According to Mr Gammage the aboriginal religious philosophy of totems basically meant that all things were responsible for others of its totem and their habitat. So, emu people must care for emus and emu habitat, and emus must care for them. The entire continent was managed under the same aboriginal law for similar biodiversity purposes; hence the idea of Australia being essentially managed as one big estate.
Indeed for indigenous Australians wilderness offered no cause for fond nostalgia, it represented a tract of land without custodians.
1. Noongars Knew Best by David Ward was first published at http://jennifermarohasy.com/2005/06/noongars-knew-best/
The image is of a Zamia palm with ripe fruit.