Blackfellas, Whitefellas, Greenfellas and Fire
Professor Bill Gammage’s award-winning book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, doesn’t explain how Aborigines originally made Australia. It’s more about how country was maintained after humans changed fire regimes and vegetation, exterminating the megafauna and creating new ecosystems that depend on human management (see How Australian Aborigines Shaped and Maintained Fire Regimes and the Biota). To manage these ecosystems sustainably we need to understand their ecological history: how they were made, how they were affected by natural climate change, how Europeans changed them.
Professor Bruce Pascoe’s award winning Dark Emu cannot guide sustainable management because it misrepresents Australian history. For example, Pascoe writes that Surveyor General Mitchell
counts the houses and estimates a population of over one thousand. He’s disappointed that nobody’s home; it’s obvious they have only just left, and the evidence is everywhere that they have used the place for a very long time.
In fact, Mitchell wrote
I saw two natives at a distance, making the best of their way to the southward. We had this day noticed some of their huts … The place seemed to have been in use for years, as a casual habitation. … The natives invariably fled at our approach … The native population is very thinly spread over the regions I have explored, amounting to nearly a seventh part of Australia. I cannot estimate the number at more than 6000 ; but on the contrary, I believe it to be considerably less.
Mitchell explored a large part of eastern Australia after Aborigines were decimated by a smallpox epidemic most likely introduced by Macassan trepangers, which swept the country from Torres Strait to Bass Strait in 1789. His were the most comprehensive observations available to estimate the population immediately after European arrival and before it was affected by pastoral development. Going by land area, a little more than eight times 6000 people would amount to a total population of about 50,000. Fire regimes, vegetation and fauna had already changed as a result of the greatly reduced Aboriginal population before the European “invasion” reached most of Australia.
Mitchell’s explorations in Queensland were obstructed on seven occasions by dense acacia scrubs full of fallen timber with no grass to carry fire. Strzelecki struggled for 26 days through 50 miles of dense young forests and ate koalas to survive because there were no kangaroos, emus or small game in the thick scrub. He was the only explorer to see koalas. When European ‘invaders’ started clearing the scrub 30 years later, they discovered spearpoints, stone axes, grindstones and clay cooking ovens showing that it was open country before smallpox. There were plagues of dingoes feeding on plagues of koalas. When Edward M. Curr squatted on the Central Murray in 1841, he deduced, from the size of trees growing in abandoned cooking ovens, that the Aboriginal population had been greatly reduced 50 years earlier.
Smallpox did not reach Tasmania, but diseases such as flu, introduced by visiting sealers, had similar impacts before European occupation. George Augustus Robinson wrote:
many of those districts which had been formerly peopled by the Aborigines are now unoccupied; the once resident tribes being utterly extinct, a fact which was evinced by the dense overgrown underwood.
Mitchell understood how Aboriginal burning maintained the landscape and described how things changed after it was disrupted on the Cumberland Plain. Gammage’s quotes in Country show this. But his collaboration with Pascoe to produce Country: Future Fire, Future Farming seems designed to downplay whitefellas’ understanding of firestick ecology and embellish traditional Aboriginal knowledge, making it supernatural – something it is not:
I’m delighted to write this book with Bruce Pascoe. He enlarges minds … offers fresh insight into the achievement of the people of 1788 and the failure of those who came later to do more than glimpse its scale and grandeur. …
Trying to understand 1788 in simply Western terms is folly. It lets some researchers say in effect, ‘We can’t see why or how Aborigines did x or y, so they didn’t’
Bill Gammage accused me of this in our correspondence about mountain ash forest. In The Greatest Estate he claimed that it is a fire-sensitive wet forest – “Mountain Ash has thin bark and almost any fire kills it” – which Aborigines regenerated with high intensity fires more than a century apart.
I wrote in Firestick Ecology that
Aborigines fired mountain ash in summer. Mature, wide-spaced trees have a thick ‘stocking’ of rough bark up to fifteen metres above the ground that insulates them from the heat of fires. Even young regrowth forests with scrubby understoreys can withstand moderate fires in dry fuels under mild weather
Gammage corrected his mistake in Country, writing “Mountain ash withstands moderate fire – that’s why tree butts are so often fire-blackened”. But he prefaced the correction with “Experts say that fires there can’t be controlled … close to saying that because newcomers can’t control fire there, people in 1788 couldn’t”.
Of course, the so-called experts who have the ears of government are wrong. But Gammage is equally wrong to lump experienced whitefellas, who know fire as a friend, with the academics and fire chiefs who are causing our fire problems.
Gammage and Pascoe seem to have taken their cue from fairdinkum traditional burning expert Victor Steffensen’s reaction to what he calls “Western science” and “the Western-trained mind”. Steffensen contrasts reductionism against a “wholistic, interconnected” world view which, he argues, requires an understanding of Aboriginal sprituality. I respect and admire Steffensen’s knowledge, his eloquence in sharing it and his quest for proper recognition of Aboriginal knowledge. Fairdinkum science is in perfect agreement with this knowledge of fire’s critical role in maintaining landscape health, safety, resilience and biodiversity. This is my quest as well, along with all the other non-Aboriginal holders of traditional knowledge.
The problem with land management in Australia is neither racial nor scientific. Our history clearly demonstrates that green academics and junk science are wholly responsible for massive and ever-increasing fire management problems including pestilence, holocaust, erosion, siltation, pollution, loss of biodiversity and massive preventable ‘greenhouse’ emissions. Not to mention death and destruction.
Gammage’s and Pascoe’s book totally ignores the real cause of Black Summer and fully embraces the Climate Cop-Out. It is divisive, for example:
In whitefella fire, controlled or not, species must take their chance … Species protection adds immense complexity to any fire plan. Today this complexity splits firies from greenies, often hostile to each other.
Ironically, Gammage refers to Black Friday 1939 and traditional burning by whitefellas to prosecute his magic view of fire ecology. He quotes my good friend and mentor John Mulligan, who was there when East Gippsland, unlike West Gippsland, was spared death and destruction long after Aboriginal management ended. Despite extreme fire weather and many ignitions by lightning, the landscape was healthy and safe because graziers still maintained it. John, with his family, travelled unconcerned through the East Gippsland bush on that day of searing heat in a car that was repeatedly stalled by vaporization in the fuel lines as a result of the extreme temperatures. There’s nothing complex about using frequent mild fire to maintain a healthy, safe, diverse and resilient landscape. Until evicted by A Labor state government, Alpine graziers maintained the tradition of burning country on their way home from summer pastures.
Cattle and brumbies didn’t destroy the peat bogs, as activists claimed when successfully lobbying the Victorian government to end the 170-year-old culture and tradition of summer alpine grazing. The bogs have been burnt and eroded, leaving the corroboree frog critically endangered since grazing and burning were progressively excluded on the advice of green academics, not fairdinkum scientists.
Gammage claims that Aborigines made magic, such as arranging clumps of cypress pine on the Murray floodplains or turning rainforest into grassland. In The Biggest Estate, he wrote: “Climate, soil, altitude, aspect, nutrients … they cannot explain all, or even most, 1788 landscapes”. He’s wrong, as I explained in Firestick Ecology. Aboriginal people did a great job by working with the natural environment, not against it like modern academic “wilderness” warriors. The truth is that rainforests survived where soils, topography and microclimate made them inaccessible to Aboriginal burning except during millennial-scale droughts. For example, Aborigines used the firestick to turn Araucarian dry rainforest on the Atherton Tableland into grassy woodland about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago. But about 9,000 years ago, a changing climate made it too wet for them to burn. Thick forest re-invaded, after which mixed eucalypt forest was maintained for 2000 years over rainforest by infrequent high intensity lightning fires until eucalypts died out after a long interval with no fire.
When European pastoralists arrived, they managed the grassy forests and woodlands remaining in the drier areas on the west of the rainforest by grazing and burning. Araucarias still survive there as woodland trees. However, with reduced burning since the second half of the 20th century, a handful of trees and shrubs, including some rainforest species, are invading the grassy country. But it’s scrub, because the country can’t support real rainforest.
You don’t need to ‘backburn’, as Gammage inappropriately and inaccurately describes it, to protect rainforest. It’s not flammable unless there’s a ladder of scrub to carry fire into the canopy when extreme conditions occasionally prevail.
Gammage believes climate change is a real and urgent danger and that Black Summer “generated an unimaginable 20 pyrocloud storms, when fire takes over the weather”. Pyroclouds are, of course, generated by fire, not climate, and history proves him wrong. He does a great disservice to Aboriginal people who maintained a healthy and safe landscape despite the rapid global warming and hugely rising seas that separated New Guinea, mainland Australia and Tasmania about 12,000 years ago.
The Settlement Drought in the early 1790s was the worst in 500 years and there were three consecutive extreme summers with high temperatures and searing northwesterly winds. Aboriginal fires were burning 24/7 to the northwest of Sydney and Parramatta. Fires reaching the European settlements were contained using hand tools and green branches. All that was lost was one hut, some gardens and fences at Sydney and another hut, out-buildings and a stack of wheat at Parramatta.
In February 1791 at Parramatta, Watkin Tench reported temperatures in the high 40s:
the north-west wind again set in, and blew with a great violence for three days. An immense flight of bats, driven before the wind, covered all the trees around the settlement, whence they every moment dropped dead, or in a dying state, unable longer to endure the burning state of the atmosphere. Nor did the perroquettes, though tropical birds, bear it better; the ground was strewed with them in the same condition as the bats.
But there were no firestorms and ember showers to destroy buildings clad with highly flammable bark and thatch, because biomass (fuel) was light and discontinuous. Nowadays, under similar or milder conditions, columns of fire engines and sorties of heavy waterbombers are unable to protect buildings clad with brick, steel and tiles. The problem is not Europeans’ “invasion”, but green academic nonsense. Gammage unaccountably neglects that part of our history where foresters realised the folly of their attempted fire suppression and applied adaptive management in response to pestilence and holocaust.
Things were bad in the mid 20th Century when thousands of hectares of hydroelectric catchments were aerially bombed with dangerous pesticides in diesel oil to control insect outbreaks and three Western Australian towns were destroyed by a megafire. Things are worse now because management has regressed again. Only two decades after broad-area burning, including aerial ignition by means of light planes, restored healthy and safe landscapes in the 1960s, academics raised theoretical objections to burning because they confused biomass/fuel with biodiversity. Since then, burning has been reduced and an ever increasing reserve system has been managed under the ‘lock it up and let it burn’ notion of ‘conservation’. Our supposedly world’s best forest management systems have been conceived in a wilderness mindset, as if the hands of man, black and white, have had no role in shaping the landscape.
After four human lives and 500 homes were lost in Canberra, the 2003 House inquiry took advice from experienced land managers, black, white and brindle. It recognised that the lack of mild burning was the problem. Fire chiefs and green bureaucrats boycotted that inquiry and gave us the 2004 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) cover-up. So we got ‘education’, evacuation and emergency response instead of sustainable management. The inevitable consequence has been unprecedented catastrophe.
When lightning ignited the Gospers Mountain fire — the largest from a single ignition the world has ever seen – the flames raged over an area which long ago had been safely occupied by Aboriginal people without benefit of boots or overalls through three consecutive extreme summers during the Settlement Drought. So ‘firies and greenies’, along with Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council and others, joined in the Climate Cop-Out. The Black Summer Royal Commission endorsed it too.
Gammage asserts that
Apart from a scatter of Aboriginal fire experts, almost no one today has the knowledge to use 1788 fire for fuel control and species protection. We must learn to burn and burn to learn. Climate change will make this harder.
That’s adding insult to injury in respect of all the experienced land managers who gave evidence to the 2003 parliamentary inquiry but were excluded from the hearings of the latest royal commission. But it’s certainly true that academic experts and fire chiefs who have the ears of government don’t know how to use fire. That’s why we had the Black Summer.
As Victor Steffensen says, “It’s not a good idea to manage country just for one species”. He also says there’s only one fire, the right fire. Victor knows that it’s about ecological maintenance, not fuel reduction, because proper management prevents fuel from accumulating in the first place. He talks of upside-down country – thin on top and thick underneath — and of sick trees growing in damp soils with lazy roots. He and I share an holistic view of caring for country.
Since the 1980s, not 1788, beautiful, healthy, safe, resilient and diverse bush has turned into sick, dirty and explosive scrub with plagues of animals such as koalas and psyllids that feed on sick trees. There are plagues of predators such as dogs and carpet snakes, or bellbirds, which feed on the leaf-eating animals. The truly endangered fauna are those, such as small mammals, that rely on diverse grassy groundlayers and are being choked out by scrub.
Pestilence is happening across the country in forests sick from lack of mild fire. At the same time, millions of dollars are being thrown at academics to study these mysterious ‘diebacks’ that are, of course, supposedly a consequence of climate change rather than loss of resilience due to neglect.
Gammage’s and Pascoe’s book seems to be part of a wider campaign. One of Professor Pascoe’s colleagues at Melbourne Uni, Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, put a similar view during an ABC bushfires special report. He recently co-authored a paper touted as a “world-first” on the one-sided Conversation, which tolerates no criticism of its authors in comment threads, purporting to show that our current fire problem is due to “colonial suppression of Indigenous cultural burning”. However, the sedimentary records analysed clearly show the marked downturn in biomass burning after foresters reinstated mild fire in the 1960s. Recent sediment cores also show the charcoal signature of fires that have destroyed alpine bogs since traditional whitefellas’ management was stopped. Gammage and Pascoe neglected to mention it, as did that ‘world-first’ paper.
The problem is much larger now than then and requires managers of all colours and all tenures to reinstate mild fire across the landscape. The problem is not lack of traditional knowledge. the problem is that land management is under the control of academics and fire chiefs who don’t know firestick ecology. They’ve prevented traditional burning by blackfellas and whitefellas alike.
As Noel Pearson puts it, the problem is “greenfellas putting their foot on our throats”.
Vic Jurskis, a frequent contributor, is the author of The Great Koala Scam, which can be ordered here