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Indigenous fire management started 11,000 years ago - study

Callan Morse -

Indigenous fire management in northern Australia was being practised at least 11,000 years ago, James Cook University researchers have found.

The research team, lead by JCU’s Distinguished Professor Michael Bird from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, says the cultural practice has implications for fire management practices today.

Professor Bird said a contributing factor to the prevalence of catastrophic fires in Australia is the ending of Indigenous fire management following European arrival, which has lead to biodiversity declines and an increase in fuel loads.

“Indigenous fire management in tropical savannas is now thought to have been essential for maintaining the landscapes and biodiversity across northern Australia that were considered ‘natural’ at European arrival," Professor Bird said.

“In the absence of Indigenous fire management — a complex process that involves strategically burning small areas throughout the dry season — savanna fires have tended to revert to the larger, higher-intensity, late dry season fires that likely existed before people when lightning was the sole source of ignition.”

The JCU study saw Professor Bird and his team take an 18-metre sediment core from Girraween Lagoon on the outskirts of Darwin, develop detailed pollen records of vegetation and charcoal, and pair them with geochemical records of climate and fire to reveal how fire patterns have changed over time.

“The Girraween record is one of the few long-term climate records that covers the period before people arrived in Australia 65,000 years ago, as well as after,” Professor Bird said.

“This unique coverage provides us with the hard data indicating when the natural fire regime of infrequent, high-intensity fires switched to a human-managed one of frequent, low-intensity fires.”

Professor Bird said the 150,000 year old sedimentary record shows Indigenous fire management in northern Australian savannah began by 11,000 years ago, if not earlier.

“The rapid change to a European fire regime with more large, intense fires occurring late in the dry season abruptly regressed patterns to the pre-human norm,” he said.

“This ecosystem-scale shock altered a carefully nurtured biodiversity established over tens of thousands of years and simultaneously increased greenhouse gas emissions."

Professor Bird suggested reversing these trends in Australia’s tropical savanna would require re-establishing an Indigenous fire regime through projects such as the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement, which is managed by Indigenous land managers.

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