Researcher calls for Aboriginal fire practices to be revived

University of New England researcher calls for Aboriginal fire practices to be revived

Michelle McKemey with a Banbai ranger at their study site.

Michelle McKemey with a Banbai ranger at their study site.


This cross-cultural approach to fire management is possible, and desirable.


The culturally-based fire practices that Aboriginal people used to manage the Australian landscape for millennia can be revived, and should be incorporated into future fire planning.

This cross-cultural approach to fire management is possible, and desirable, University of New England (UNE) researcher Michelle McKemey will argue when she and Aboriginal Elder Lesley Patterson address the Ecological Society of Australia conference on Monday.

Ms McKemey's doctoral research has been carried out in partnership with the Banbai people of the NSW New England Tablelands who are working to rebuild a connection with the land.

Over several years of experimentation and monitoring in collaboration with Ms McKemey, the community proved that it could strategically use fire to support biodiversity and minimise wildfire damage.

"We now have evidence that Indigenous fire management practices can be restored in a community where the transmission of traditional knowledge had been disrupted, and that these practices deliver social, economic, ecological and cultural benefits," Ms McKemey says.

"This knowledge is timely, because the megafires of last summer demonstrated that Australia is facing overwhelming challenges in terms of fire weather and disaster management."

The Federal and State inquiries that followed the fires recommended that a restoration of Indigenous burning practices be supported as part of a cross-cultural approach to future fire management.

Past inquiries into the adequacy of fire management in Australia's south-east had dismissed Indigenous approaches, arguing that the relevant knowledge had been lost.


"We've proved that when Aboriginal people are committed to rediscovering cultural burning practices, and they are supported by cross-cultural science, it is possible to make significant advances in the renewal and application of this knowledge," Ms McKemey said.

The world's foremost wildfire expert, Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, has warned that due to climate change, the planet is entering a "Pyrocene", an age when whole landscapes will be altered by fire events of a ferocity with no precedent in human history.

Professor Pyne has also noted that Australia should be in a particular strong position to navigate the Pyrocene if it can successfully merge Indigenous understanding of fire management with modern technological approaches.

"Cultural burning is not merely a practice of fire management, but a holistic philosophy that underpins how land, wildlife, people and the cosmos interrelate," Ms McKemey said.

"As we move further into the unpredictable and dangerous Pyrocene, Australia should make a deep commitment to supporting Indigenous people to help us work towards a sustainable future."


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