As destructive bushfires become more common there is increasing political discussion how we manage them sustainably. Inevitably these debates raise questions of the past ecological effects of Aboriginal fire usage.
There are two well-known narratives about Aboriginal fire use.
One, popularised by Tim Flannery, stresses the ecologically disruptive impact of Aboriginal fire use. This storyline argues that the megafauna extinctions that immediately followed human colonisation in the ice age resulted in a ramping up of fire activity. This then led to the spread of flammable vegetation which now fuels bushfires.
Another, promoted by Bill Gammage, suggests that the biodiverse landscapes that were colonised by the British were the direct product of skilful and sustained fire usage.
Such broad-brush accounts give the impression that the specific details of Aboriginal fire usage are well-known and can be generalised across the entire continent. Sadly this is not the case.
So rapid was the socio-ecological disruption of southern Australia that researchers have had to rely on historical sources, such as colonial texts and images, and tree rings, pollen and charcoal in lake sediments, to piece together how Aboriginal people burned the land.
Such records are open to interpretation and there remains vigorous debate about the degree to which Aboriginal people shaped landscapes. To read more and follow the conversation click here.
The 5th Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference will be held at Jupiters Gold Coast, QLD on the 30-31 May 2016. The Conference theme ‘EARTH, FIRE and RAIN’ will continue to examine issues that impact preparedness, resilience, response and capability. To register for the conference click here.