Traditional fire management cuts bushfires, protects environment and culture

In recent years, it has sometimes seemed like the whole world was on fire, with destructive fires in California, Australia, and Portugal lighting up the skies. But fire destruction may not be inevitable if we change our ways of managing fire, as we can learn from Northern Australia.

“Bringing together their traditional knowledge with modern science and technology, Indigenous fire managers have cut uncontrolled bushfires by half, lowered the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and provided much-needed employment in some of the remotest parts of the country,” explains Charles Darwin University’s Centre for Bushfire Research.

BushTV for Dept. of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources on YouTube Feb. 18, 2020

This ‘two tool kit’ solution to climate change has proven itself effective over two decades, reducing fires and thus carbon emissions, creating Indigenous jobs, protecting ancient sites, and improving biodiversity all at the same time. Aboriginal ‘cool burning’ techniques strategically burn swatches of land early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel when it is still damp, creating a mosaic so fires that do start are not nearly as destructive as hot fires that burn late in the dry season when the grass has dried out. Paired with modern technology, it is very effective.

“While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.”

“Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate. Importantly, people need to listen to science — the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world,” Willie Rioli, a Tiwi Islander and Indigenous Carbon Industry Network steering committee member, said during last year’s Savanna Fire Forum at Charles Darwin University.

Northern Australia became prone to destructive fires after Aboriginal peoples were moved off their traditional lands in the 1950s, thus ending their traditional fire management regimes. In their absence, hot and damaging fires ravaged an average 40% of the region’s landscape each year. By the time they moved back onto their lands from settlements in the 1980s and 1990s, “the land was out of control,” said Dean Yibarbuk, a park ranger whose indigenous elders encouraged him to seek solutions.

The innovative savanna carbon farming approach that began in 2006 grew out of collaboration between Indigenous people, land managers and scientists that had begun eight years earlier with the goal of tackling this long-existing problem. Their coordinated regional program, which tried to replicate traditional Indigenous mosaic burning, showed researchers that improved fire management could significantly cut greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

Around this time, Darwin Liquid Natural Gas applied to construct a liquid natural gas processing plant to process offshore gas from the Timor Sea. The Northern Territory government required the company to offset the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring rainforest equal to the area cleared for the plant. But the burning project offered a different alternative, and that led to the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project – the first carbon abatement project of its kind anywhere in the world.

The project began as a partnership between traditional landowners, five Indigenous Ranger groups, the Northern Territory government, the Northern Land Council, the Darwin Centre for Bushfires Research, and ConocoPhillips, a global oil and natural gas company, and initially was funded through money paid to the government by the company. 

Now ALFA (NT) Ltd., an Aboriginally-owned not-for-profit company, uses funding from the sale of Australian Carbon Credit Units to support Aboriginal people in ‘returning to, remaining on and managing their country, the protection of biodiversity, the preservation and transfer of knowledge, the maintenance of Aboriginal languages and the well-being of traditional custodians.”

The savanna burning methodology, hailed as a world first when it was developed in 2006 and winner of the inaugural Eureka prize for innovative solutions to climate change in 2007, has sparked a multi-million dollar Indigenous carbon industry that now includes 29 savanna fire projects managing more than 17 million hectares of savanna woodland and grassland across northern Australia. The fire management approach has been so successful that it’s being adopted in countries around the world, says Charles Darwin University Centre for Bushfire Research fire ecologist Rohan Fisher.

“Our research shows the area of hot, late dry season fires across northern Australia has halved over the past 15 years and the area of all fires has dropped close to a quarter,” he said. “The frequency of fires has been reduced over an area the size of Germany, or one and a half times the size of Victoria.” And that has occurred despite the way climate change has worsened fire weather conditions.

“The Australian government is now starting to see the benefits of having Indigenous people look after their lands,” says Joe Morrison, one of the project’s pioneers. “Aboriginal people who have been through very difficult times are seeing their language, customs and traditional knowledge being reinvigorated and celebrated using Western science.”

“This fire management program has been successful on so many levels: culturally, economically and environmentally,” says Mr. Yibarbuk. “Through reinstating traditional burning practices, new generations of landowners have been trained in traditional and western fire management, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas have been abated, and the landscape is being managed in the right way.”

The program continues to innovate. A free mobile app that will give land managers bushfire information on their mobile phones in almost real time has just been launched. NAFI (Northern Australia and Rangelands Fire Information) will provide access to two- to three-hourly updates on active fires, weekly updates of high risk areas across 80% of Australia, and burnt area maps from current and previous years. “Knowing where fire scars (previously burnt areas) are is critical to prevention of large unplanned wildfires later in the season,” says Mr. Fisher.

The app also could be adapted for management of savanna country in southern Africa and Brazil. “The NAFI fire resource provides critical information underpinning years of research and supporting traditional Indigenous knowledge. There is no reason why that can’t be used to benefit the management of savanna in other parts of the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.

Sources and more reading:

Indigenous expertise is reducing bushfires in northern Australia. It’s time to consider similar approaches for other disasters. The Conversation, Feb. 25, 2021

The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers. The Conservation, Mar. 10, 2020

Australia’s big burning issue tackled in the north. Charles Darwin University, 21 Feb. 2020.

Reducing Fire, and Cutting Carbon Emissions, the Aboriginal Way. New York Times, Jan. 16, 2020

Fighting fire with fire. Nature Conservancy.

Study: Western Arnhem Land fire management. (Chap. 12, Native Title Report, 2007)

West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) Project.

Eureka Win for West Arnhem Land Fire Project (Australia).  Indigenous Science Network Bulletin, Oct. 2007

Fire information goes mobile to Australia’s land managers. Charles Darwin University. Mar. 5, 2021.

#Land Back is Climate Justice. Lakota Peoples’ Law Project. Aug 18, 2020.