“Fires with benefits”


Aborigines starting fires using sticks (Image credit: Michael Fontenot [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr)

I was lucky enough visiting the Top End, Northern Territory (NT) for studying a subject, Indigenous Land Management.

I spent almost a week at Matmananak outstation, aboriginal station in a remote region. I stayed with and learned from aboriginal people about how they manage their land using fire.

Fire is an important tool for aborigines. They have been using fire for millennia to shape this continent, Australia. Aborigines use fire to clear land for hunting ground and harvesting bush foods.1

They burn grasses when drying out to promote grass shoots that attract prey for hunting. They use termite mounds as hearth to grill harvested fish and shellfish, creating a-well baked meals.  It is similar with rock burning, bakar batu, a traditional way of cooking food in West Papua, Indonesia.


Greeny grass shoots grows among the termite mounds just three weeks after burning (Image Credit: James Kidman)

Fire is paramount in aboriginal culture to protect sacred sites. Additionally, it is used in traditional and spiritual ceremony.2

Children learn “playing” with fire since early ages. This is the way they pass their knowledge to the young generation.

Before burning land, the leader of tribe, Junggai, gives briefing or information to the members about job description of each person, burning direction and the meeting point or evacuation area.

From my experience, burning a land was conducted from two direction; east and west. Hence, junggai divided us into two small groups of three people. Each group started from different points but finally met at the same spot. The accuracy was impressive, although without compass or global positioning system (GPS).

Despite the fact that they do not have access to satellite and weather forecast devices, they have been very accurate in predicting weather by observing clouds, wind and other natural cues.

During burning process, some people collect bush foods, or do hunting animals such as wallaby and kangaroo.

Women are prohibited from doing this activity. They usually do domestic job such as looking after kids, gathering food and cooking. However, a junggai woman can ignite fire before used by her clan members.

Women only harvest the amount of food that is needed by collecting yams and honey bees. They leave the tuber and root growing for next season. They consume efficiently without wasting food, a great example of sustainable way of life.

Given the burning system has been applied since long time; the vegetation has been adapted well to fire. They can survive under the fire regime, patchy burning. For example, Cypress pine, a fire sensitive plant, still maintains its population in NT due to patch-mosaic burning.


Cypress pine (Image credit: Tonny Rodd [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via flickr

Fire stick farming can prevent invasive weed species into the area because of its capacity and cost effectiveness. Weed is a plant that grows in wrong place. Weeds have detrimental impacts on the ecology and environment due to their invasiveness.

They can outcompete native species, decrease agriculture production, and reduce land and cultural values. Mimosa pigra is an example of invasive weed species that has been threatening biodiversity in NT.3

Deploying fire as a management tool can control the weeds in NT at the same time maintaining indigenous people’s culture.


A patchy burning will create mosaic that provide habitat for native species (Image Credit: James Kidman)

Although fire stick farming posses many benefits, current concern is it emits carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the greenhouse gasses, into the atmosphere, promoting greenhouse effect. However, this can be reduced by burning at early dry season. It will reduce fuel and prevent wildfire.

Fire stick farming is not a panacea for everything. However, given such benefits and cultural values, it should be integrated into current management practice such as a tool to control invasive species and maintained biodiversity in the state of fire, NT.


Further Reading

  1. J. Russel-Smith, P. Whitehead & P. Cooke (Eds.), Culture, ecology and economy of fire management in North Australia Savannah. Rekindling the Wurrk tradition (pp. 313-327). Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing.
  2. Langton, M. (2002). The edge of the sacred, the edge of death. Sensual inscriptions. In B. David & M. Wilson (Eds.), Inscribed Landscape (pp. 253-269). United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.
  3. Lonsdale, W. M., & Miller, I. L. (1993). Fire as a management tool for a tropical woody weed: Mimosa pigra in Northern Australia. Journal of Environmental Management (United Kingdom), 39,77-87.

2 Responses to ““Fires with benefits””

  1. mlakidang says:

    Hi Gayle,

    Thank you for your interest. Indeed the subject, especially this particular topic is very interesting.
    Back to your question related to how indigenous people control fire. They really understand fire behavior because they live with it. It’s not only as a tool for them, but also attached on their culture and belief (dreaming, totem).

    In term of using fire to burn area, they usually practice cool burning, burning by the end of wet season (March). Hence, fire is controllable and is create patchy mosaic that prevent wild fire and maintain the biodiversity. This fire regime is different from (better than) fire regime that has been made by “white fellas”. The peak of burning in NT usually occurs on June and July.

    They burn along creek lines and use the creek lines as a firebreak to control larger hot fires. Usually they work in group, so they can do from different direction at the same time. It looks like random, but they said that they plan before. It’s easily control the fire on that way. Another thing is by burning like circular, they can trap or do hunting animal at the same time because preys are trapped in the burning area.

    If you’re interested in this topic, I suggested some great book for reading. I also attach some useful website that you might be interested in.
    Jeremy Russel-Smith, Peter Whitehead and Peter Cooke (Eds). 2009. Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australia Savannas, , CSIRO Publishing.
    That is really good book. The chapter “The language of Fire” is translated story from Aboriginal language, so it’s really interesting to read.
    Also, you can have a look some papers of Marcia Langton, and David Bowman:
    Langton, M. (2002). The edge of the sacred, the edge of death. Sensual inscriptions. In B. David & M. Wilson (Eds.), Inscribed Landscape (pp. 253-269). United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.
    Langton, M. (2006). Earth, wind, fire and water: the social and spiritual construction of water in Aboriginal societies. In B. David, B. Barker & I. J. McNiven (Eds.), The social archeology of Australian Indigenous Societies (pp. 139-160). Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
    Bowman, D. (2003). Bushfires: a Darwinian perspective. In G. Cary, D. Lindenmayer & S. Dovers (Eds.), Australia Burning: Fire ecology, policy and management issues (pp. 3-14). Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing.

    Thank you. Enjoy the reading 🙂

  2. gpereira says:

    I’m actually completing a subject about Australian Flora so this post definitely peaked my interest. I was wondering however, how do they manage to contain the fire’s width, do they ignite it from different/multiple points in some kind of enclosing formation or do they use some other kind of strategy?