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1788 Fire

Before Christmas I had the privilege of attending a wonderful lecture by historian Bill Gammage at the University of Melbourne called “1788 fire” – a reference to the fire regime at the time of the first European settlers.

Bill Gammage’s book “The Biggest Estate on Earth”

Bill gave an intriguing talk about how Aboriginal people maintained a fire regime that was woven into every fabric of life to produce an abundant and predictable bounty from a harsh and unpredictable environment.

Central to Bill’s thesis are the frequency of historical descriptions of early Australia as ‘parklike’ – such as “appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park”. When combined with constant references to Aboriginal fire in early records – “never known a serious bushfire caused by the blacks” – a picture emerges of a constant and universal management of the landscape by fire.

Bill described how this universal fire management was embedded in the law, in totems, and depended on a deep spiritual knowledge of the land. Aboriginal language records words for unburned green land, unburned land ready for burning, creeping fires, hot fires – English has no equivalents for these words. Bill explained the five key benefits of this regime: controlling fuel loads, maintaining diversity, maintaining balance, ensuring abundance and being able to locate resources conveniently and predictably.

It’s intriguing because it challenges our instinct about land clearance rates, stopping bushfires and promoting passive conservation in national parks. Where’s the balance?

And it’s interesting because we are now developing fire methodologies to reduce emissions from fire into the atmosphere – essentially trying to move back towards a 1788 fire regime, which Bill promotes. The savanna burning methodology a patchwork of small early season fires rather than a few big hot destructive fires. Market meets tradition?

What’s clear is that increasing our knowledge of 1788 fire will help us to understand current conditions of invasive people, plants and animals and losses of topsoil, native grasses and species. As Bill suggests, maybe then we will be able reconcile more frequent fire with species protection.

I’ve got Bill’s book. Need to read more. More to follow.


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