Indigenous Australians say traditional land burning could help counter bushfires

Indigenous Australians Oliver Costello of Firesticks Alliance (L) and Jacob Morris demonstrate cultural burning in a forest in Illaroo, New South Wales, Australia, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

As bushfires engulf parts of southeastern Australia, indigenous Australians say their traditional land burning methods could help contain out-of-control blazes that have led to the worst wildfire season on record.

Hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people since September, as well as an estimated 1 billion animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.

Jacob Morris, a 28-year-old indigenous man, has conducted fire workshops to teach traditional land management ways, and believes that a lot of Australia’s grief could have been avoided by using what is known as “cultural” or “cool burning”.

To revitalize the land for farming or hunting purposes, the practice involves lighting low intensity fires to burn off bushland.

On some privately held land near the bushfire hit town of Nowra, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Sydney, areas where traditional burning had been used were greener and less affected by the bushfires, according to Morris.

“When we light the fire we actually walk with it,” Morris said, as he showed Reuters how it was done on a patch of grass, adding that the lie of the land and wind direction were key factors to consider because they affected a fire’s intensity.

Usually the fire is controllable and burns for a short period of time, which helps to prevent future fires or at least, slows down their rate of spread, Morris said. 

The same ways are practiced by indigenous groups across the globe, said Jordan Profeit, a Yukon first nation fireman visiting Australia from Canada on a knowledge exchange program. 

  Australia’s rural fire service and other land management organizations have begun to consult with indigenous groups as part of their burning regimes. But calls are rising for more indigenous oversight of fires and land management.

David Bowman, a professor of fire science at the University of Tasmania, said “cultural burning” tended to be used for small holdings, whereas fire services conducted hazard reduction burning operations on a larger scale.

Ultimately, he said, the choice of method would come down to funding.

“On public land, the government has a budget,” Bowman said. “Give them a different budget and you can get a different outcome.”

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