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The answer to burning questions

By Roger Underwood - posted Friday, 29 November 2013

Two important books have come my way recently. One, The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, is destined to become a classic in Australian literature, let alone bushfire literature. The other is Burning Issues by Mark Adams and Peter Attiwill, a concise, but comprehensive outline of the science underlying fuel reduction burning in Australia. Alongside Stephen Pyne's earlier classic (Burning Bush), well-read copies of all three of these volumes should be on the bookshelf of every land manager in Australia, and should be compulsory study for undergraduates in all of the natural sciences.

Both books deal with the planned use of fire. Read together they provide the intellectual underpinning for the theory and the practice of prescribed burning in Australia. Gammage's focus is historical – he examines in detail the pre-1788 Australian landscape, and the way this was achieved and sustained through the use of fire by Aboriginal Australians. On the other hand, Adams and Attiwill focus on the science and practice of fuel reduction burning used as a tool by modern land managers seeking to minimise bushfire damage in (what has become since 1788) an environment prone to bushfire damage.

Both Aboriginal and modern use of fire are controversial subjects. In my experience there is a sharp line drawn between those who believe in planned burning and want to see more of it, and those who oppose it and want it stopped. The opposition to burning is at its most intransigent within sections of academia, but the debate regularly spills over into conferences, journals, courtrooms, TV programs, articles in newspapers, Letters to the Editor and cocktail party discussions. There are many academics who deny that Aboriginal people ever lit anything much other than a campfire; they are supported by the environmentalists who assert that fuel reduction burning destroys the biodiversity and does not help in the control of wildfires. On the other side are those (mostly firefighters and land managers) who believe that without an effective fuel reduction program, Australian communities in bushland areas can never be defended from the horror of a killer bushfire, while Australian bushland will be regularly ravaged by high-intensity wildfire.


The Biggest Estate on Earth, subtitled How Aborigines Made Australia is a large and beautifully presented book. The author, Bill Gammage, is well-known in historical and literary circles, regarded by many as the foremost historian of Australian participation in the First World War. Gammage's capacity for painstaking research and careful scholarship, formerly directed at military history, has now been turned to the Australian landscape and Aboriginal land management. The result is compelling. He rejects the view that Aboriginal people were backward and uncivilised, or that they were people who "trod lightly on the ground" as a minor component of the ecosystem. Instead, he argues that Aboriginal people were skilful, determined and experienced land managers who were active across the breadth of the Australian continent and Tasmania, operating to a strict set of rules ('The Law') about what areas must be burned, when, how, for what purpose, and by whom. They not only knew how to manipulate the Australian landscape and biota to optimise their food resources, but they knew how to sustain pleasing and safe living conditions, and to facilitate their comfortable life style and their spiritual demands.

As Gammage demonstrates, the use of fire by pre-1788 Australians was no random or careless fire-lighting; it was a calculated and careful program of deliberate and well-managed burning, the techniques and practices for which had been perfected over millennia, and become deeply embedded in cultural law. The beautiful and provident landscapes discovered by the first Europeans from one end of Australia to the other, and described by so many of them as being "just like an English nobleman's estate", was an intensely managed landscape ... and the management tool was fire.

None of this is new. The concept of Aboriginal burning to achieve land use (and other) objectives has been put forward many times over the last 50 years, for example, by the pre-historian Rys Jones, the anthropologist Sylvia Hallam, ecologist Ian Abbott, silviculturalist Vic Jurskis and forester Peter Ryan. What is new in Gammage's work is the astonishing volume and breadth (and the clear and systematic presentation) of the supporting evidence. This is drawn from a wide spectrum of sources (the bibliography alone lists 1500 books), and includes detailed discussion of the Australian biota, a comprehensive review of the writings of the first European explorers and early settlers, analysis of the paintings and sketches of the first artists, and a myriad of examples taken from diaries, journals, maps, newspapers, and photographs. Gammage has a good knowledge of the Australian bush, much of it based on personal observation, and this allows him to illustrate the variety of processes whereby the Australian biota survive or recover from fire.

The book has some weaknesses. I think that he under-rates the importance of soil type and fertility in determining vegetation type and structure. Gammage does not go so afar as to suggest that Australia's pre-1788 vegetation was shaped solely by fire, but I think he could have more clearly outlined the interactions between fire and site factors which lead to variations in the biota. Elsewhere Gammage wants to attribute patterns in the jarrah forest to Aboriginal burning but which are clearly the result of drought deaths of forest on shallow soils over granite. Also he could have made more of the fascinating linkages between fire, nutrition and health in Australian forests.

The Biggest Estate on Earth is a monumental work, with detail piled upon detail, all meticulously and methodically assembled ... indeed by the time I was 80% through it, the word "overkill" almost came to my mind. But then I remembered that this work was not aimed at people like me, but at a wider public, including those in academia who continue to deny Aboriginal fire use, or who cannot accept that the Australian biota is able easily to survive in an environment in which fire occurs frequently; indeed it deteriorates in its absence. Gammage himself recognises that some of the book is repetitive, but he knows he has almost to go overboard in anticipation of the response of his critics. In an appendix Gammage actually takes these people on and is devastating in his commentary on their views.

However, I am glad that I read to the end, because Gammage's final chapter is quite remarkable. This is an almost stand-alone essay, entitled Becoming Australian and in it he pays tribute to the Aboriginal achievement in their management of the Australian landscape and biota, and of what has been lost since 1788. He does not need to dwell on the costs that have resulted from the abandonment of the Aboriginal approach. These continue to mount as we speak, as modern Australians persist in trying to overlay a European concept of land management onto the Australian environment ... or, just as futile, to apply the American approach, attempting to try to suppress intense fires in heavy fuels. And yet while he recognises that there can never be a return to the pre-1788 situation, his cry is that we must redouble our efforts to understand it and learn from it ... not just for community protection but to sustain our forests, woodlands, tropical savannas, rangelands, deserts and rainforests. The book concludes with the lines: "We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, we might one day become Australian'. With this statement, Gammage presents a challenge which goes to the very heart of land management in this country.


While Gammage provides the historical and anthropological underpinning for fuel reduction burning, by contrast Professors Adams and Attiwill focus on the scientific and practical bases. In many ways they take up where Gammage left off. By inserting a European-type community into the Australian landscape, and at the same time abandoning the way in which this landscape was managed by Aborigines, modern Australians set themselves an enormous challenge: how to survive and prosper in a bushfire-prone environment. And, as they point out, it is not just a question of human survival. How at the same time can we sustain a beautiful, healthy and provident bushland?

At least part of the answer, according to Adams and Attiwill in their new book Burning Issues, (subtitled Sustainability and Management of Australia's Southern Forests) is through the planned use of fire. Not only will this allow more effective wildfire control, the authors argue, it will also result in healthier and more resilient forests.

Just as Gammage is well-known as a historian, Adams and Attiwill are well-known within international botanical, ecological and forest management circles. Both have enjoyed distinguished careers in research, teaching and writing and have long been interested in promoting responsible bushfire management. Also like Gammage, they recognise that there can be no turning back the clock to 1788 ... but they have studied and they clearly understand the lessons that can be learned from those times. Onto these old lessons they weld the new lessons gained from modern scientific research into fire science and practical fire management. They draw two fundamental conclusions: (i) bushfires burning in heavy fuels are unstoppable, no matter what resources are thrown at them, with disastrous results; and (ii) bushfire disasters can only be minimised if steps have been taken before the fires start to reduce fuels by burning them under mild conditions.

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This is a review of The Biggest Estate on Earth and Burning Issues. It was first published in The Forester, Volume 55, Number 1, March 2012, pp 22-23.

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About the Author

Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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