Coexisting with combustion: the future of bushfire management
Dr Timothy Neale is a social scientist interested in how humans interact with bushfires and how we can better relate to the inevitable and sometimes threatening presence of fire on our planet. He is the co-leader of the ‘Hazards, Culture and Indigenous Communities’ project (2017-2020) funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
I first became interested in fire during my doctoral research in far north Queensland. It’s a landscape where fire and smoke are a reliable everyday presence through the dry season – seeing people not treat fire as an emergency started me off in thinking about the diversity of relationships we can have with it.
Since the end of the Second World War, Australians in the nation’s south have increasingly aspired not only to own their own homes, but to own homes close to coastlines and forests – close to nature. Unfortunately, these same landscapes are places that for millennia have regularly experienced bushfires, multiplying the sources of ignition and the number of things we care about – like houses, humans and animals – put at risk.
One of the key difficulties, as I think of it, is that human time scales and ecological time scales are so different. Someone can live in a landscape for years and never experience a significant bushfire, and therefore reasonably not think of it as a high-risk area, but that landscape’s rhythm is actually ticking away on a time-scale of decades or centuries, preparing itself for a major fire.
In addition to these mismatched time scales, anthropogenic climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of the fires on this continent; changing the weather and the vegetation we can expect in a location, and often increasing the risks.
Given that we cannot completely control fire and there are no absolute fixes, we need to create a better and more honest relationship of coexistence - that’s the headline message from recent social science research into bushfire.
“Given that we cannot completely control fire and there are no absolute fixes, we need to create a better and more honest relationship of coexistence - that’s the headline message from recent social science research into bushfire.”
Agencies and communities are already doing a lot in this direction, seeking to know more about the good and bad of fires in the environment, to understand the risks different communities face, though there is much more to do, including engaging much more extensively with Aboriginal peoples.
A major aspect of my research is looking at the many benefits from engaging with Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people more generally in bushfire management. Many Aboriginal peoples have an immense pride in the long history of their skilful use of fire, and we have good evidence about the clear ecological, economic, social and health benefits to being engaged in caring for Country.
When European settlers first began invading the continent over two hundred years ago, many saw Aboriginal peoples’ fire practices as an annoyance or a threat. Only a few settlers, often farmers, saw the positive effects these practices could have on promoting regrowth and reducing the fuel available for future fires, and even fewer respected their importance in hunting, ceremony and communication.
In recent years, there’s been renewed interest in Aboriginal peoples’ fire practices and knowledge, thanks in part to books such as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, however it’s interesting to note that non-Indigenous scientists have been influenced by these ideas for some time. If we look at early ideas of fuel reduction burning, developed at the CSIRO in the 1960s and ‘70s, they were drawing on ethnographic and archaeological evidence about how, when and why Aboriginal peoples used fire in the landscape. Regrettably, that influence was not matched with any real engagement with contemporary Aboriginal peoples.
That said, the mistake many government agencies and others here in Australia and overseas can make is that they can be too focused on what Aboriginal peoples might have to tell us, non-Indigenous peoples. We have to understand that, in Australia and elsewhere, many Indigenous peoples’ past and present experiences of sharing their knowledge have frequently been negative and exploitative. It’s pretty galling, if you think about it, to follow up centuries of dispossession by asking for more.
“It’s pretty galling, if you think about it, to follow up centuries of dispossession by asking for more.”
There are better alternatives, and one is to think in terms of respectful partnership. As Aboriginal scholars and activists have been saying for a long time: non-Indigenous peoples have to give up some of their power and control if they want to work together. We have to start from the premise of their rights, as the First Peoples of this place, to speak authoritatively about Country.
Dr Timothy Neale is a DECRA Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In 2018 he was awarded a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council for his project ‘Pyrosecurity: understanding and managing bushfires in a changing climate’.
His research aims to examine cultural and political factors that have shaped bushfire management in Australasia during the past two decades and identify how practices might better adapt to a changing world.