Teacher background information


Year 9 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Scientific understanding, including models and theories, is contestable and is refined over time through a process of review by the scientific community (ACSHE157 - Scootle )

  • investigating how fire research has evaluated the effects of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples fire regimes and how these findings have influenced fire management policy throughout Australia (OI.2, OI.5, OI.9)

This elaboration provides students with a context in which to investigate the way scientific understanding of the natural world is built and modified as new evidence emerges. In particular, it is an opportunity for students to learn how understanding has been refined about the role of anthropogenic fire in shaping the interactions between organisms and their environment. Students learn about the beneficial effects associated with the re-introduction of traditional fire regimes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a land management and fire risk mitigation strategy, and can expand their investigations to develop their understanding of traditional purposes and contemporary benefits of reinstating these practices.

Prior to the arrival of European colonisers, First Australians had for millennia conducted controlled and purposeful burning of the landscape, a practice that can be described as a planned and precise local caring of country.

Burning occurred over most of Australia every 1-5 years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities carefully determined the timing, frequency and location of the burns depending on local flora and local abiotic features, as well as purpose. Cool fires were burnt in spring or in the early dry season to minimise the build-up of fuel load, thus preventing the occurrence of uncontrollable and much more damaging wildfires later. These cool fires also ensured effective cycling of soil nutrients which encouraged the growth of staple foods, such as yams and cycads. The subsequent regeneration of plants could also encourage the migration of target game species by providing the feed and shelter they preferred. Hotter fires were lit in early summer to open hard seeds and pods or germinate legumes.  

The development of such strategic burning regimes was based on sophisticated knowledge in multiple scientific fields such as: meteorological knowledge for timing season and moisture conditions; botanical knowledge to understand how certain plant species respond to or even depend on fire and how tolerant they are of fire intensity; and zoological knowledge to choose the correct timing to encourage game species to the area.

The typical European perspective of fire was that it was dangerous and destructive. Until the middle of the 20th century, fire management practices in Australia were generally aimed at prevention of any fires occurring and suppression of fires wherever possible. According to the legislations of most States and Territories at the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities faced imprisonment and fines for burning landscapes according to their traditions.

Therefore, with the incursion into Australia of Europeans, many with little or no experience of bushfires, traditional land management practices were disrupted, the result being sudden and extensive ecological change. The extent of these changes is evident by comparing the descriptions of landscapes seen by naturalists such as Leichhardt with the landscapes as they currently exist. For example, in many places where there were park-like grasslands, there are now dense undergrowth and forest with their associated increased fuel loads and altered landscapes.

When scientific research of bushfires began in Australia in the 1930s it was heavily influenced by, and modelled on, North-American and European research with its prime focus on bushfire protection and suppression. The beneficial effects of bushfires on Australian ecosystems and biodiversity were not yet understood by Western science. Following a series of catastrophic bushfires in the 1950s and 1960s, researchers became increasingly aware of the necessity of fuel load reduction to prevent the occurrence of massive out-of-control wildfires. Western researchers increasingly looked towards indigenous solutions to fire management and, although heavily debated at the time, controlled burnings were eventually introduced to mitigate the risk of large-scale fires. Bushfire scientists also started to investigate the long-term effects of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire regimes on forest health and on the distribution of plant and animal communities.

It is now understood that anthropogenic fire has been an integral part of Australia’s ecosystem for thousands of years and has favourably shaped the distribution and diversity of flora and fauna on the Australian continent. It is widely accepted among ecologists today that the disruption of traditional burning practices has led to substantial declines in biodiversity in many areas, particularly in the tropical savanna regions of northern Australia. Numerous studies have shown that by utilising traditional ecological knowledge and re-adopting traditional burning practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the risk of catastrophic fire events, as well as the total area burnt by hot wildfires, is significantly reduced. This also leads to environmentally beneficial outcomes, such as fewer greenhouse gas emissions and reduced long-term damage to ecosystems. See elaboration for ACSSU179 for a more detailed discussion of the beneficial ecological effects of traditional fire management practices.

By exploring recent studies into various fire-management regimes, students learn how the traditional fire management practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have informed and shaped Australian bushfire policies and subsequently reduced the occurrence of catastrophic fire events. Students also have opportunities to develop their appreciation that science understanding of the natural world is dynamic and continues to be refined over time.

This teacher background information is written to explain how the history/culture of this topic overlaps with the content of the Australian Curriculum: Science. As such, it is not a complete review of the history/culture context/s investigated and may be referring to one component or concept of a highly complex topic. At times it may discuss only examples from either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. A more complete understanding of the topic may be found through community consultation and further research.

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 Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. (2000). Fire! The Australian experience. Proceedings of the National Academies Forum. University of Adelaide, SA: Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Limited.

Barnsley, I., & North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance. (2009). A Carbon guide for northern Indigenous Australians. United Nations University: Institute of Advanced Studies.

Bird, R. B., 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.

Bowman, D. (2016a, 23 Feb). 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

Bowman, D. (2016b, 23 Feb). Aboriginal fire management: Part of the solution to destructive fires. University of Tasmania News. Retrieved from http://www.utas.edu.au/news/2016/2/24/43-aboriginal-fire-management-part-of-the-solution-to-destructive-fires/

Cool Australia. (n.d.-a). Unit: Cool Burning – Primary. Retrieved from https://www.coolaustralia.org/unit/cool-burning-primary/

Cool Australia. (n.d.-b). Unit: Cool Burning – Secondary. Retrieved from https://www.coolaustralia.org/unit/cool-burning-secondary/

Council of Australian Governments Standing Council on Environment and Water. (2012). Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework. Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Forest Fire Management Group. (2014). National Bushfire Management Policy Statement for Forests and Rangelands. Canberra: Forest Fire Management Group for the Council of Australian Governments.

Garnaut Climate Change Review. (2010). Case Study: Abating greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of savanna fires: Opportunities and challenges – Northern Territory. In R. Garnaut (Ed.), Garnaut Climate Change Review. Commonwealth of Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, R. (1969). Fire-Stick Farming. Australian Natural History, 16(7), 224-228.

Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of New South Wales. (1949). Bush Fires Act.  Retrieved from https://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/acts/1949-31.pdf

Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council. (2010). Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030. Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

North Australia Fire Information. (2010, September). North Australia and rangelands fire information. Retrieved from http://www.firenorth.org.au/nafi3/

Pyne, S. J. (1998). Burning bush: A fire history of Australia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Russell-Smith, J., Whitehead, P., & Cooke, P. (2009). Culture, ecology and economy of fire management in North Australian savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk tradition. Clayton, Australia: The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Publishing.