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Bushfire Management

Bush fires are an essential part of nature, as the process facilitates plant reproduction and growth. But the occurrence of bush fires has a lasting effect on several aspects of the desert ecosystem. Before European settlement, Aboriginal people burned the land deliberately, particularly in the Spinifex grasslands. Their yearly burning practices prevented a build up of native grasses and vegetation, which would limit destructive fires. But more than anything else, this practice would create rich and varied habitats for native species of animals and the range of prey to the Aboriginal people was greatly increased.


At least 40,000 years ago, fire was a major environmental tool in the evolution of Australian plants. Lightning started wildfires as the plant growth built up after each Wet season. When the Aboriginal people arrived, they began to use fire stick farming to attract a variety of game animals. They did this by burning small patches of vegetation in different stages of regeneration; the first affected were the new green shoots of spinifex, then the longer lived grasses, and finally a community of grasses dominated by spinifex. In 1872, Ernest Giles, the first European into the Gibson Desert recorded “the natives were about, burning, burning, ever burning; one would think they were of the fabled salamander race, and lived on fire instead of water.”

Animals take advantage of the tasty and nutritious plants that germinate after the burning. Fire Beetles cover the blackened earth while Crimson Chats dive after them. Fork tailed kites and hawks circle after the fire has passed, feeding on fleeing animals.

Many other animals which used to thrive in Spinifex grasslands managed by fire have vanished. When Europeans settled in inland Australia, the patch-burning technique of the Aborigines was altered. They were forced into missions and towns, their patch burnings abandoned. The considerable change in these burning techniques contributed to the demise of native animal species.

The Rufous Hare Wallaby became critically endangered. It was once widespread and abundant. Its habitat is now limited to small islands off western Australia and a small region of the Tanami desert. The collapse of this population 50 years ago coincided with the movement of Aborigines into settlements. Today, as Aborigines move back onto their native homelands, their ancient burning techniques once again in practice encourage a mosaic of animal habitats and vegetation patterns.

Suggested activities: How is fire utilised where you live? What are its uses in agriculture and grassland management? How does burning impact our environment, considering air pollution and destruction of property caused by wildfires?



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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 27, 2001 11:57 AM.

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