Fire-stick farming, also known as cultural burning and cool burning, is the practice of Indigenous Australians regularly using fire to burn vegetation. The associated loss of browsing and grazing animals resulted in savannah changing into dry forest. In the resultant sclerophyll forests, fire-stick farming maintained an open canopy and allowed germination of understorey plants necessary for increasing the carrying capacity of the local environment for browsing and grazing animals. Aboriginal people may have been able to aim the burning of the scrub to avoid growing areas. There may have been a ritual taboo against burning certain areas of jungle. This type of farming directly increased the food supply for Aboriginal people by promoting the growth of bush potatoes and other edible ground-level plants.
While it has been discontinued in many parts of Australia, it has been reintroduced to some Aboriginal groups by the teachings of custodians from areas where the practice is extant in continuous unbroken tradition, such as the Noongar peoples' cold fire. There are a number of purposes, including to facilitate hunting, to change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, weed control, hazard reduction, and increase of biodiversity. Fire-stick farming had the long-term effect of turning dry forest into savannah, increasing the population of nonspecific grass-eating species like the kangaroo.
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A 2011 research paper has questioned whether Indigenous Australians carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape. A study of charcoal records from more than 220 sites in Australasia dating back 70,000 years has found that the arrival of the first inhabitants about 50,000 years ago did not result in significantly greater fire activity across the continent – although this date is in question, with sources pointing to much earlier migrations at perhaps 100,000 and 120,000 years ago. The arrival of European colonists after 1788, however, resulted in a substantial increase in fire activity. The study shows higher bushfire activity from about 70,000 to 28,000 years ago. It decreased until about 18,000 years ago, around the time of the last glacial maximum, and then increased again, a pattern consistent with shifts between warm and cool climatic conditions. This suggests that fire in Australasia predominantly reflects climate, with colder periods characterised by less and warmer intervals by more biomass burning.
Some researchers, like David Horton from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, suggest, "Aboriginal use of fire had little impact on the environment and ... the patterns of distribution of plants and animals which obtained 200 years ago would have been essentially the same whether or not Aborigines had previously been living here".
This regular firing favoured not only fire-tolerant or fire-resistant plants, but also encouraged those animals which were favoured by more open country. On this basis, it is clear that Aboriginal burning, in many areas at least, did affect the "natural" ecosystem, producing a range of vegetation associations which would maximise productivity in terms of the food requirements of the Aboriginal people. Jones goes so far as to say that "through firing over thousands of years, Aboriginal man has managed to extend his natural habitat zone".
Aboriginal burning has been blamed for a variety of environmental changes, including the extinction of the Australian megafauna, a diverse range of large animals which populated Pleistocene Australia. A. P. Kenshaw, among others,[who?] has argued that Aboriginal burning may have modified the vegetation to the extent that the food resources of the megafauna were diminished, and as a consequence the largely herbivorous megafauna became extinct. Kershaw is one of a small but growing group of palynologists who suggest that the arrival of Aborigines may have occurred more than 100,000 years ago, fire-stick in hand, eager to burn the virgin landscape. He suggests that their burning caused the sequences of vegetation changes which he detects through the late Pleistocene. The first to propose such an early arrival for Aboriginal peoples was Gurdip Singh from the Australian National University, who found evidence in his pollen cores from Lake George indicating that Aboriginal people began burning in the lake catchment around 120,000 years ago.
Tim Flannery believes that the megafauna were hunted to extinction by Aboriginal people soon after they arrived. He argues that with the rapid extinction of the megafauna, virtually all of which were herbivorous, a great deal of vegetation was left uneaten, increasing the standing crop of fuel. As a consequence, fires became larger and hotter than before, causing the reduction of fire-sensitive plants to the advantage of those that were fire-resistant or fire-dependent. Flannery suggests that Aboriginal people then began to burn more frequently to maintain a high species diversity and to reduce the effect of high intensity fires on medium-sized animals and perhaps some plants. He argues that twentieth-century Australian mammal extinctions are largely the result of the cessation of Aboriginal "firestick farming".
Most of these theories implicate Aboriginal use of fire as a component of the changes to both plant and animal communities within Australia during the last 50,000 years. Aboriginal people had some effect, but the significance of that effect is far from clear. It seems likely that the introduction of the intensive use of fire as a tool did follow, but was not directly a consequence of, the extinction of the megafauna. If, as has been suggested, the megafauna remained in some areas until the Holocene, then we should be looking for evidence within the last 10,000 years for changes induced by new Aboriginal burning patterns.
The other factor which few of these researchers have considered is the likelihood that Aboriginal population density increased rapidly and dramatically over the last 5–10,000 years.[pages needed] An increase in Aboriginal burning frequency may have been associated with the introduction or invention of new technologies that allowed Aboriginal people to concentrate on those large resources which were previously so difficult to capture – kangaroos and large wallabies. Fire was initially used to promote and retain the environments which were most suitable for these animals, and fire was subsequently used for maximising the productivity of these areas after the massive Aboriginal population increase which occurred during the late Holocene, probably because of the greater access to this abundant resource.
The stone technology which Aboriginal people had been using with little modification for over 40,000 years diversified and specialised in the last 5,000 years. Spear barbs and tips peaked about 2,000 years ago, and then completely disappeared from the archaeological record in southeastern Australia. They were replaced by technologies associated with the exploitation of smaller animals – shell fish hooks and bone points along the coast for fishing, axes for hunting possums across the woodlands, and adzes for sharpening digging sticks along the banks of the larger rivers where the yams were abundant. The intensive and regular use of fire was an essential component of this late Holocene shift in resource base. The evidence suggests that Aboriginal burning may have affected Australian vegetation, but that by far the greatest effect has occurred over the last 5,000 years.
Cultural burnings were slowly eradicated after Britain colonised Australia from 1788 onwards.
Cultural burnings were reintroduced in parts of Australia during the early twenty-first century, and some Australian states now integrate them with other fire-prevention strategies. State investment in Indigenous fire planning strategies has been most widespread in northern Australia. In 2019 the Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research at Charles Darwin University released data suggesting that the reintroduction of traditional burning on a large scale had significantly reduced the area of land destroyed by wildfires.
The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season led to increasing calls by some experts for the greater use of fire-stick farming. Traditional practitioners had already worked with some fire agencies to conduct burns on a small scale, with the uptake of workshops held by the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation increasing each year. Farmers and other landowners were interested in learning how traditional fire practices could help them to preserve their properties. Former Emergency Management Commissioner for the state of Victoria, Craig Lapsley, called on the Federal Government to fund and implement a national Indigenous burning program. Firesticks Alliance spokesperson Oliver Costello said that a cultural burn could help to prevent wildfires, rejuvenate local flora and protect native animal habitat.
However, in the final report of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report 2020, the Commission found that "The weight of research into the effects of fuel reduction on the propagation of extreme bushfires indicates that as conditions deteriorate, fuel reduction is of diminishing effectiveness".
- Milton, Vanessa (18 September 2018). "Indigenous fire methods protect land before and after the Tathra bushfire". Australian Broadcasting Corporation News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
In 2017, the Bega LALC began a cultural burning program as part of the management strategy for their landholdings.
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The cultural burns use a lot of ground fuel in fire-prone areas, making a bushfire less likely if cultural burns are regularly carried out.
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"I find myself following on from those old people who have passed and continuing the journey of educating and teaching the younger people just like I was taught," said Mr Steffensen an Indigenous fire practitioner from Cape York.
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Senior traditional owner, Bessie Coleman, has had a long connection with fire management on Jawoyn country, at the southern end of Kakadu, spanning back in her family for generations. "From our family, they pass the knowledge down, it stays with me all the time," she said. "It's passed from generation to generation, right up to the new generation and now I'm doing it with my grand kids, working on country, burning on country."
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