In northwestern Australia’s sparsely populated Kimberley area, aboriginal people have been undertaking traditional fire management for thousands of years, according to the Kimberley Land Council.
Amid the devastatingly unprecedented bushfires that have been raging in Australia since this year’s bushfire ignited, indigenous methods of preventing bushfires, which draw on ancient ways are gaining traction.
Under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conversion Act, 1990 bushfire management is separated into two categories, of firefighting and fire prevention, but amid the ongoing bushfires, indigenous methods of preventing fire are gaining significance.
On the other hand, indigenous Australians have used fire as a land management tool and it is still used by them to clear land for agricultural purposes and for the protection of properties from intense and uncontrolled fires.
Australia bushfires: The scenario so far
Up until the first week of January, an estimated 24 people and half a billion animals had lost their lives due to the fires, hundreds of properties have been destroyed and roughly 12 million hectares of land have burned nationwide. Earlier this month, thousands of residents of southeastern Australia were stranded on a beach in Victoria, following which aircraft and military ships were deployed to deliver food and water.,
While bushfires are an intrinsic part of the Australian environment, as per the Australian government website, the country’s natural ecosystem has evolved with fires and the landscape and its biodiversity has been shaped by historic and recent fires. In fact, while many of Australia’s native plants are fire-prone and very combustible, a number of species depend on fires to regenerate.
Moreover, while bushfires are a routine affair in Australia, authorities have called this season of bushfires the worst on record, aggravated by an impending drought and record high temperatures. In fact, this year the fires started in August, much before the Southern Hemisphere summer which is typically between December-February.
Even then, scientists have been wary of establishing a direct link between climate change and these bushfires even though evidence suggests that what is causing these bushfires could be linked to climate change. For instance, as per the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was the warmest and driest year for the country since 1900. In 2019, daytime temperatures were two-degree Celsius higher than normal whereas the average rainfall was 40 percent below normal.
What does it take to extinguish Australia bushfires?
According to the Australian Academy of Science, there are many techniques to extinguish and contain bushfires including starting small fires on the path of a bushfire so that there is no fuel left for it to keep burning. This method is referred to as “backburning”. Other methods include firefighters using water to put them out or water bombing, under which helicopters drop water on bushfires.
Even so, sometimes, bushfires are simply too big to be put out using these methods. Such is the case with the current bushfires, with some reports comparing the size of some of them to places such as Sydney and Manhattan.
What are the indigenous methods?
In northwestern Australia’s sparsely populated Kimberley area, aboriginal people have been undertaking traditional fire management for thousands of years, according to the Kimberley Land Council. It says that with the onset of colonisation and the removal of the aboriginals from their lands, traditional burning was stopped during the twentieth century, which led to “the emergence of large, uncontrolled wildfires, usually occurring late in the dry season and destroying important ecosystems and habitats.” Now, in the last 25 years, these traditional methods are seeing a reinvigoration with the recognition that western fire prevention methods “have not been working”.
Some of the indigenous fire management techniques include lighting ‘cool’ fires in targeted areas during the early dry season between March and July. This method burns the fuel for larger fires later in the dry season when the weather is very hot and at the same time it also protects habitat for mammals, reptiles, insects and birds.
According to a report in The New York Times, over the past decade, fire-prevention programs, which are undertaken mainly on aboriginal lands in northern Australia have “cut destructive wildfires in half.” Even so, these traditional techniques are not fool-proof methods and need to be used in unison with other fire-prevention techniques.
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