Teacher background information


Year 6 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

Scientific knowledge is used to solve problems and inform personal and community decisions (ACSHE100 - Scootle )

  • discussing how modern approaches to fire ecology in Australia are being informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge and fire management practices (OI.2, OI.9)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to understand how solutions to contemporary environmental issues in Australia are being informed by the traditional ecological knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Traditional ecological knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long been used to manage and maintain the environment. Contemporary environmental issues such as uncontrolled bushfires, carbon emissions and endangered biodiversity require complex scientific approaches to slow or prevent continued damage to the environment and danger to Australian communities. Scientists are turning to the ecological knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to inform and implement solutions to these contemporary environmental issues.

For many thousands of years fire has been used to manage the Australian landscape and has influenced the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have lived on and with their Country and Place. Many Australian ecosystems have adapted to regular fire management, and the biodiversity within these ecosystems is dependent on those fire regimes. Fire regimes traditionally implemented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples fulfilled many requirements including: to clear the ground for travel and camp sites, to facilitate hunting by attracting animals with fresh grasses, and to ensure the plentiful supply of important food resources. European colonisers who interpreted burning of Country as an environmentally destructive practice prevented traditional fire regimes being implemented. This has resulted in an increase in the number of large, uncontrolled bushfires, greater soil erosion and soil salinity, and the intrusion of introduced weeds and feral animal populations. More recently, the importance of carefully controlled and managed fire regimes has been recognised as an essential tool to manage the Australian environment. Contemporary science is now looking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners to develop solutions to these issues based on traditional ecological knowledges and practices. It is now recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire practices can positively influence the Australian environment and inform future implementation of fire regimes.

Bushfires are a severe threat to the Australian environment and communities, damaging or destroying ecosystems, habitats, human lives and properties, and contributing to environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Current research suggests that bushfires in Australia are increasing in number, intensity and severity due to a changing climate and changes in land management practices. The impact on communities is also significant with bushfires destroying property and homes, crops, livestock and infrastructure. It has been estimated that the economic impact of bushfires in Australia in the last 200 years exceeds $1.6 billion. The risk of bushfire and the extent of the landscape that is affected by an uncontrolled fire is dependent on several factors including the weather, type of vegetation and fuel load in the environment. In Australia on average approximately 50 million hectares of land are affected by bushfire every year.

The devastation that bushfires reap on Australian communities and ecosystems has led to a drive to implement strategies that will prevent such destruction. Traditional low intensity, slow burning fires that are intentionally set during cool seasons are carefully monitored and managed to reduce the leaf litter debris on the ground. A mosaic pattern of burning is placed through the landscape to reduce heavy fuel loads in these environments and to create firebreaks, preventing the possibility of a high intensity uncontrolled fire spreading in the area.

Specially trained Indigenous rangers working with the Kimberley Land Council in north Western Australia use these long held and enduring practices in conjunction with modern technologies, such as satellite imaging, to reduce the possibility of uncontrolled bushfires in the region. The Tjuntjuntjara Peoples in the Great Victoria Desert region implement small controlled fires in strategic locations to alter the path and minimise the impact of bushfires. The benefit of traditional land management practices can be seen in Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales. Since 2017, the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council has implemented traditional cultural burn practices to manage the land. An area of more than three hectares of land was strategically burnt by Aboriginal fire practitioners, using methods informed by traditional knowledge, before a bushfire swept through the region in 2018. Six months after the bushfire, native grasses had sprouted on the land that had been strategically managed by traditional fire management techniques, while burnt areas not strategically managed by traditional fire management techniques remained scorched and unviable.

The risk of uncontrolled bushfires is significantly increased in areas where introduced grasses such as buffel and gamba grasses have spread uncontrollably, increasing the fuel load in the environment. The introduced grasses, intended as pasture for livestock, were selected based on rapid growth rates, hardiness, prolific seed production and seed dispersal, as well as their nutritional value. However, these properties facilitated the uncontrolled spread through vast areas of Australia, displacing native vegetation and contributing to ground level fuel loads. Compared with native grasses, gamba grass has a higher photosynthetic rate – using sunlight more efficiently to produce more biomass. This higher biomass means that the ground level fuel load increases in areas where these grasses predominate and produces fire of greater intensity. Gamba grass, for example, facilitates fire of up to 48,000 kilowatts per metre compared with 2,000 kilowatts per metre for native grass. Without the removal or control of such fuel on the ground, large amounts of combustible material can accumulate.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used fire as a means of clearing land and ensuring that fuel loads are minimised to reduce the potential of high intensity bushfires. The Bidwell Peoples of the Gippsland region in Victoria were observed by early European explorers to set fires for the purpose of burning off dry grass, while in other parts of south east Australia fires were set to burn off old grass, leaves and fallen branches. Such practices are now being reintroduced in areas where the risk of high intensity fires is high. The careful and controlled application of fire by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is complex and considers factors such as the extent of the land to be covered, the season and ground moisture. These factors ensure that the low intensity fire remains controlled and is effective in removing the fuel load from the environment, thus reducing the risk of a bushfire in the region.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn how the traditional ecological knowledges and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are being consulted to solve current environmental problems in Australia. Students learn how the deep and enduring scientific knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are informing land management practices that impact the Australian community.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Government, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. (2012). Threat abatement plan to reduce the impacts on northern Australia’s biodiversity by the five listed grasses. Retrieved from http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/threat-abatement-plan-reduce-impacts-northern-australias-biodiversity-five-listed-grasses

Bliege Bird, R., Bird, D. W., Codding, B. F., Parker, C. H., & Jones, J. H. (2008). The “fire stick farming” hypothesis: Australian Aboriginal foraging strategies, biodiversity, and anthropogenic fire mosaics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(39), 14796-14801. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0804757105

Bowman, D. (2016). Aboriginal fire management: Part of the solution to destructive bushfires. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-fire-management-part-of-the-solution-to-destructive-bushfires-55032

Bush Heritage Australia. (n.d.). Fire management. Retrieved from https://www.bushheritage.org.au/what-we-do/landscape-management/fire

Cochrane, M. A. (2009). Tropical fire ecology climate change, land use and ecosystem dynamics. New York: Springer.

Commonwealth of Australia, National Biodiversity Strategy Review Task Group. (2009). Australia's biodiversity conservation strategy 2010–2030. Canberra, A.C.T.: Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (2018). Tiwi Carbon Study: Managing fire for greenhouse gas abatement. Retrieved from https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/LWF/Areas/Ecosystems-biodiversity/Managing-landscapes-for-biodiversity/Fire-ecology/Burning-emissions/Tiwi-carbon

Douglas, K. (2017). How Aboriginal knowledge can help the world combat wildfires. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23531331-600-how-aboriginal-knowledge-can-help-the-world-combat-wildfires/

Driscoll, D., Lindenmayer, A., Cary, M., Gill, R., MacGregor, G., Salt, N., … York, A. (2010). Fire management for biodiversity conservation: Key research questions and our capacity to answer them. Biological Conservation, 143(9), 1928-1939. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2010.05.026

Graham, J., Baird, S., & Mulcahy, L. (n.d.). Spinifex land management: Threatened species work for malleefowl. Retrieved from http://www.gvdbiodiversitytrust.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Spinifex-Malleefowl-presentation.pdf

Jones, R. (2012). Fire-stick farming. Fire Ecology, 8(3), 3-8. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03400623

Joyner, T. (2018, July 23). Aboriginal rangers key to reining in massive fires burning 'out of sight' across the country every year. ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-23/massive-fires-burn-out-of-sight-across-the-country-every-year/9938902

Kimberley Land Council. (2019). Indigenous fire management. Retrieved from https://www.klc.org.au/indigenous-fire-management/

Lynch, A. J. J., Fell, D. G., & McIntyre-Tamwoy, S. (2010). Incorporating Indigenous values with ‘Western’ conservation values in sustainable biodiversity management. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 17(4), 244-255. https://doi.org/10.1080/14486563.2010.9725272

McCaw, W. L. (2013). Managing forest fuels using prescribed fire: A perspective from southern Australia. Forest Ecology and Management, 294, 217-224. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2012.09.012

McCormick, B. (2002). Bushfires: Is fuel reduction burning the answer? (Department of the Parliamentary Library Current Issues Brief. No. 8 2002-03). Retrieved from https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/library/pubs/cib/2002-03/03cib08.pdf

Milton, V. (2018). Indigenous fire methods protect land before and after the Tathra bushfire. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-18/indigenous-burning-before-and-after-tathra-bushfire/10258140

National Academies Forum (Australia). (2000). Fire! The Australian Experience. Proceedings of the National Academies Forum seminar, 1999. Canberra, A.C.T: Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Limited.

Natural Heritage Trust, & Australian Government, Department of the Environment Water Resources. (2004). Invasive species in Australia [fact sheet]. Canberra: Department of the Environment and Heritage, Natural Heritage Trust.

Northern Land Council. (2017). South east Arnhem Land fire abatement (SEALFA) project. Retrieved from https://www.nlc.org.au/media-publications/south-east-arnhem-land-fire-abatement-sealfa-project

Petty, A. (2012). Introduction to fire-stick farming. Fire Ecology, 8(3), 1-2. https://doi.org/10.4996/fireecology.0803001

Robinson, C. J., Barber, M., Hill, R., Gerrard, E., & James, G. (2016). Protocols for Indigenous fire management partnerships. Brisbane: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Victoria State Government: Department of Sustainability and Environment. (2008). Living with fire: Victoria's bushfire strategy. Melbourne: Victorian Government.

Volkova, L., Meyer, C. P., Murphy, S., Fairman, T., Reisen, F., & Weston, C. (2014). Fuel reduction burning mitigates wildfire effects on forest carbon and greenhouse gas emission. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 23(6), 771-780. https://doi.org/10.1071/WF14009