Fire Power – Landline ABC

This video was created by the ABC program, Landline and was aired on television back in May 2013.

We have decided to post it here on our web site as a reminder that there are many scientists and researchers who support the claim that insufficient fuel reduction is destroying our health, sustainability of life, environment and economy.

ABC Presenter, Pip Courtney introduces this video with Tim Lee reporting.


Pip Courtney, Presenter: Although the Australian continent is shaped by fire and flood, large-scale devastating bushfires are a man-made modern phenomenon. That’s the view of distinguished historian Bill Gammage, who argues that Australians have failed to understand their environment. His views may be contentious, but his latest book has won the nation’s top literary prizes and continues to win new and influential supporters. Tim Lee reports.

Tim Lee, Reporter: In little more than 200 years of European settlement, the Australian landscape has been changed profoundly. So a patch of remnant bushland in Canberra, our most carefully planned city, seems an unlikely spot to detail the key to understanding that change.

But walking with Professor Bill Gammage through the Australian bush is like opening a window to view the continent as it once was long ago.

Bill Gammage, Historian: This is a very interesting example of how eucalypts behave, Tim, which is great for a historian of Australia. They chase light. Even though Australia’s got plenty, they chase it. And you can see here this big, old Yellow Box, pre-European, and it’s leaning that way. And then a bit further down the hill, you see an Apple Box, it’s leaning the other way.

Tim Lee: Bill Gammage is a rare gem, a distinguished academic and historian with the ability to convey complex ideas in clear, concise words. His reading of the Australian landscape led to him writing his acclaimed work, The Biggest Estate on Earth. Published in late 2011, the book is one of the important ever written about Australia’s environment. It took him 12 years, but in a sense, combines his lifetime of observations.

Bill Gammage: I used to work out in the bush. I used to be a wheat lumper in the eastern Riverina. And like a lotta people working in the bush, I was interested in associating trees and soils. You know, if you know what sorta tree it is, you know what sorta soil it is and therefore how good it is for farming and whatever it may be. But then I realised that a lot of places where there was soil that should be growing trees, wasn’t. This is not where there were paddocks or anything, but in hills and bush. And I puzzled at why. And you could see it wasn’t things like salt or aspect or anything, and I gradually realised that it must be Aboriginal fire. And gradually I accumulated the evidence and then that led me to the books and the contrast between what people were saying then and what I could see now.

Tim Lee: Fire has played a major, mostly highly destructive role in post-European Australia. The most catastrophic bushfires – Black Thursday, Black Friday, Ash Wednesday, and most recently, Black Saturday, are named after the day on which they began.

The dry eucalypt forests of the south are rated as the world’s most combustible. Climate change modelling predicts a further drying out, prompting dire warnings of larger, more frequent, more catastrophic wildfires.

Bill Gammage doesn’t share that view. He contends that to confront the future, we must learn from the past. Specifically, and crucially, we need to heed the ancient knowledge and practices of Indigenous Australians.

Bill Gammage: Europeans fear fire and Aborigines treat it as an ally. It’s a totem, a very important totem, but it’s also a friend. I say it’s as much a friend in the bush as it is in the fireplace for Aboriginal people. Whereas for Europeans, it’s a threat. And of course, that’s self-confirming. As we know, fires today immolate the fringes of virtually every capital city. That could never have happened in Aboriginal times. Had there been fires that devastating in 1788, Aboriginal people could never have run away from them. And since they survived, it follows that such terrible fires didn’t happen.

Tim Lee: And that helps explain why his book is called The Biggest Estate on Earth. Bill Gammage is not the first to show Aborigines used what has been dubbed fire-stick farming – burning extensively and systematically throughout the year to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods. Several scientists have previously done that. But he is the first to exhaustively study the written and pictorial record left by the first European settlers.

Bill Gammage: The scrub was very open when Europeans arrived. There’s stories of driving coaches through country which is now very thick scrub. And what happened was simply that Aboriginal burning was stopped and that allowed the scrub first and then the Eucalypts to regenerate and gradually the bush became denser and denser and denser. And you can see that particularly on hills, but you can see it in all kinds of vegetation. Open, dry, Western Plains-type of Eucalypts, the wet sclerophyll forest, rainforest. Rainforest expands, wet sclerophyll forest gets thicker. So, Aboriginal fire was actually making Australia, not a natural landscape, but a made landscape. Aborigines made it. And Europeans, when they came, assumed it was natural and so they left it alone. And what that meant was that trees and scrub were promoted to the disadvantage of grass.

Tim Lee: The task of the historian is to make sense of the past, and although Bill Gammage’s book deals with events of the distant past, he says evidence of how we’ve fundamentally changed this environment is all around us, if only we know how to recognise it.

Ian Lunt, Ecologist: To me, the two big messages out of it is firstly, how intelligent and informed land management was over 200 years ago and how we bumble around now like bulls in a china shop when we’re trying to achieve things with a very limited knowledge base and pretend we can do it all. And the second bit is how much that country’s changed and how much the issues have changed.

Tim Lee: Associate Professor Ian Lunt from Charles Sturt University in Albury, NSW is an ecologist whose research centres on native grasslands and woodlands and how to preserve and restore endangered ecosystems and biodiversity.

Ian Lunt: From Bill’s story of Aboriginal land management, it was about attracting kangaroos. How do you manage a landscape to provide food? We don’t have that goal anymore. Often we’ve got too many kangaroos. So, we’ve got a whole lot of really different issues. …

… So we’re on Monument Hill near Albury, which is one of those amazing places with a fantastic understory of native plants all throughout here, but it’s been knocked around in the past. Most of these trees are regrowth; it was cleared early on. But because it hasn’t been grazed really intensively we’ve got a whole variety of native grasses, shrubs all throughout this, including some rare species. So this is a really wonderful environment, and as you can see, it’s got this mixture of open gaps with the grasses and shrubby patches, which for birds and other animals is really amazing and really valuable having that complexity.

Tim Lee: European grazing animals, everything from cattle to rabbits, have profoundly changed Australia’s landscape. Bill Gammage broadly observes that they tended to overgraze the flatter, more fertile country, chewing out the palatable native species, but avoiding slopes which require more effort, usually for less reward. It allowed the hillside vegetation, trees and scrub, to thicken up.

But how do we restore such landscapes? It’s just one of many quandaries the book throws up.

Ian Lunt: I think one of the big challenges we haven’t really quite faced with is to what extent do we want to restore what we had or to what extent do we want to restore functioning systems that have the best of what we’ve got now and move forward? And that’s the challenge between building on that past, bridging through what we’ve got now and what we could potentially get in the future. Because we can’t go back to there.

Tim Lee: Most agree that fire should be used for ecological management and to a far greater extent.

Victoria’s high country was ravaged by catastrophic wildfire in 2002-’03. That fire, at the height of summer, burnt 1.3 million hectares. Large-scale wildfires flares again in 2005-’06 and yet again in 2009, the fire known as Black Saturday.

Those who live in the mountains and are most at risk from such fires hope Bill Gammage’s book will help reshape public policy on land and fire management.

Chris Commins, Mountain Cattlemen’s Association: I find it really refreshing that someone, especially an academic, has been able to put into print something that the bushmen, the mountain cattlemen, have been saying virtually forever: that we need the right type of fire regime in the mountains. So I’m hoping that Bill Gammage’s book is going to be a catalyst for change in public land management.

Bruce Commins, Cattle Producer: So, I just hope it does make a difference and a lot of people read it and take on board what it says, because we can’t go on the way we are. To kill 180 people on Black Saturday and fires burn into the suburbs of Canberra and the environmental destruction of these holocaust feral fires is just – we’re going to create a desert out there. We’ve just gotta change. And, you know, hopefully something will change with this book. We have had a Royal commission into the fires, we’ve had people killed, but to date, nothing has changed. So hopefully from here on something will change.

Tim Lee: Brothers Chris and Bruce Cummins are cattlemen at Ensay in Victoria’s east. Both heartily agree that Bill Gammage’s examination of the past holds the key to confronting the future. Crucially he shows that the loss of systematic burning by Aborigines very quickly led to a proliferation of scrub and bush. In fact in 1888, despite all the land clearing for farming, the continent actually had more trees than in 1788.

Bruce Commins: The key message is that in any patch of bush you look at anywhere in Australia, 75 per cent of the vegetation that we see today wasn’t there prior to European settlement. I think we have to get back to doing more burning, as the Aborigines did. What the Gammage book says is not someone’s theory or guesswork, it’s what people recorded and early photographs and paintings, etc. So it’s not guesswork.

Tim Lee: Across southern Australia, autumn heralds the main season for the systematic annual burning of the landscape. The cool nights and moderate daytime temperatures keep fires in check, fires that reduce the undergrowth that fuel destructive, hot summer bushfires. The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires recommended far more extensive fuel reduction burning would help curtail such disastrous fires. Bill Gammage strongly endorses that finding.

Bill Gammage: You can do it in the middle of winter, you can do it in autumn, you can do it in summer if you’ve got a lot of mini firebreaks, whereas we are reluctant to reduce fuel. A lot of firefighters would agree with me, I’m sure, we should reduce fuel, but then there are people who say, “Oh, well, it’s gonna dirty the washing or it causes asthma or black ground doesn’t look good,” and all these sorta things. Those people, I think, have to compare those things with people being killed by big killer fires, and as far as I’m concerned, anyway, there’s no contest. We’ve got to stop killer fires.

Tim Lee: Bill Gammage’s views continue to find new and influential allies.

Bill Gammage: We’ve let scrub and forest build up. It’s a daunting task to return even towards 1788 safer balance, but 1788 shows us the rewards if we do.

Tim Lee: Today he’s in Melbourne addressing the Stretton Group. It’s a non-political, not-for-profit organisation established after the disastrous 2002-2003 bushfires that raged across southern Australia. Scientists, landholders, former government officials among them, all united by a wish to see better environmental management of public lands. It believes the constructive use of fire is crucial to achieving that.

Following Black Saturday, Victorian Government administers have taken an especially strong interest in the issue.

Donna Petrovich, Former VIC. Parliamentary Secretary: What this book does is actually raise, from a historical perspective, what our Indigenous people used to do in this country very effectively. Fire-stick farming, as Bill calls it, was a natural part of looking after the environment. We now have an opportunity to work with government departments and communities to actually make sure that we increase the burning, which actually protects our biodiversity, protects our species, doesn’t increase weeds and pest infestations that occur when we have a hot, burning bushfire. It’s a very good line in the sand.

Tim Lee: Mountain cattlemen Bruce and Chris Commins hope it marks a change in public policy about fire management.

Chris Commins: The management practices have to change, as you said, about spending hundreds of millions of dollars putting out fires; it’d be nice to be able to harness just a few million to – for the other nine months of the year burning the bush and preparing for those wildfires.

Bruce Commins: We’ve got now I think where government people have built their careers and their empires around fighting fires and I think there needs to be a change around that to preventing the fires. So perhaps we spend the same amount of money on fires, but to spend it differently so that we’re preventing fires rather than fighting them. I mean, all the helicopters and machinery and men on double time aren’t going to put these fires out. It’s – we need to manage it – spend money, but do it differently.

Tim Lee: The Victorian Government will this year spend almost $340 million in fire and land management and almost $34 million on expanding the fuel reduction burning program.

Donna Petrovich: We’ve taken what was a very small target, historically, from 130,000 hectares to 380,000 hectares, which will be completed as a running target in 2014. This year we’ve – today I think we’ve achieved 248,000 hectares, which is fantastic work. We’ve seen a cultural shift from a government department which was quite risk-averse to now a fully-engaged department which is working towards doing the prescribed burning in a cool mosaic pattern and making sure that we are actually looking after our environment.

Tim Lee: Ecologist Ian Lunt takes issue with some of Bill Gammage’s conclusions, but he’s pleased to see the book fuelling the debate on how we best manage the Australian environment.

Ian Lunt: Bill’s quite adamant in his book the past has gone, you know, so what do we get out of that about the positive use of fire we can use to promote biodiversity, promote safe landscapes for people and functional landscapes? If we can get that, then we’re on a winner.

Tim Lee: Can we ever restore the country to what it was like when the first Europeans arrived?

Bill Gammage: Can we get that knowledge back? I’d say there’s nobody that knows as much as the people of 1788, the Aborigines then, not even Aborigines now. But Aborigines know much more than the average European and they have a great advantage, and that is, especially in the north and centre, they want to stay on country. And the advantage of that is you learn local conditions – the local plants, how flammable they are, the local animals, what they need in terms of feed and shelter, where fire’s dangerous, where it’s safe, how often to burn. And staying on country and getting that local knowledge is the key to local fire management and Aboriginal people are far and away the best placed to do that. … What we lost by not listening to people in 1788 is a real tragedy. What we could have learnt is just beyond imagination. And it’s, you know, it’s cost us – it’s costing us a lot now in those cities and towns that get burnt and those people who get killed in fires.

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One Reply to “Fire Power – Landline ABC”

  1. Totally agree with Bill. Sadly, the empire builders (RFS, academic grant gougers,politicians and greenies) ruthlessly protect their dung hills. Big fires mean big business to them so they resist for all they’re worth! The losers are the volunteer firies, wildlife, farmers and those who lose their lives and properties unnecessarily.
    The VFFA warned me that: ‘They’ll get you!’ when I started to write about it and they were spot on! The RFS media machine tried to ‘kill’ stories by bad mouthing me to news editors. True!

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