Incorporating Indigenous knowledge in UNSW bushfire research

03 Jul 2024

This NAIDOC Week 2024, we look at the work of UNSW Canberra researchers led by Bundjalung man UNSW Bushfire Director Professor Jason Sharples.

Many people in modern society are fearful of fire. Bright orange flames and billowing black smoke are almost solely associated with death and destruction.

It isn’t surprising after the devastation caused by the 2019-20 Black Summer Bushfires, among others. But this was not always the case.

To Indigenous Australians fire was a tool for hunting and harvesting food, it was a key part of cultural rites, and to understand and use fire was intrinsic to living on Country. Indeed, this deep connection between Indigenous people, fire and Country endures today.

UNSW Canberra researchers are working to better incorporate Indigenous practices and understandings of fire in bushfire management, to better prepare for an increasingly uncertain future thanks to climate change.

The theme of NAIDOC Week for 2024 is ‘Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud’. The National NAIDOC Committee said, “fire represents the enduring strength and vitality of Indigenous cultures, passed down through generations despite the challenges faced … As we honour this flame, we kindle the sparks of pride and unity, igniting a renewed commitment to acknowledging, preserving and sharing the cultural heritage that enriches our nation.”

UNSW Bushfire Director Professor Jason Sharples, a Bundjalung man, said understanding Indigenous fire knowledge added depth to modern bushfire research while also paying respect to the cultural practices common across Australia prior to colonisation.

“Fire management was an intrinsic part of living on Country for Indigenous people and involved the whole community,” Prof. Sharples said.

“Many of our fire practices today, such as prescribed burns, are informed by Indigenous knowledge, even if people may not realise it. Local Indigenous people would know the land was ready for a burn when certain environmental indicators aligned – for example, when wattle flowers fell and when certain cloud formations were observed over prominent mountains. Essentially, Country told them the right time to burn, and the people would offer fire as a gift back to Country. 

“From a Western scientific perspective, this aligns with selecting the correct season based on the native flora and only burning on a day when temperature and relative humidity conditions are within an acceptable range, as indicated by the cloud formations.

“There are endless lessons to be learned from the relationship Indigenous Australians have with fire and at UNSW we’re making a concerted effort to ensure those lessons are central in our research,” Prof. Sharples said.

UNSW Canberra projects

UNSW Canberra is leading two significant projects, supported by the NSW Bushfire and Natural Hazards Research Centre, in which incorporating Indigenous knowledge and collaborating with Indigenous partners is a key requirement.

One of the projects will look at ridgelines and how to best manage the landscape around them to prevent bushfires from developing into dangerous conflagrations.

“Ridgelines are significant within the landscape both ecologically and because they correspond closely with Indigenous Songlines,” Prof. Sharples said.

“Ridgelines are particularly susceptible to dry lightning strikes and so they often serve as the ignition point of bushfires. Moreover, the winds that swirl around ridgelines can create extreme bushfires and also send embers flying great distances.

“Indigenous Songlines are routes that cross Country linking significant sites, and they often followed ridgelines. In this project we will work with Indigenous partners to combine traditional knowledge of ridgelines with mathematical modelling to improve management of these significant areas.”

The second project is examining the bushfire regimes of south-east Australia and attempting to better understand how they will be affected by climate change. With updated models and mapping, it’s hoped the research will identify the areas most at risk of extreme bushfire events, like fire thunderstorms.

To do this, the researchers will examine traditional fire regimes, Indigenous calendars and cultural fire lore from across Country to gain a deeper understanding of how modern fire regimes have changed over time.

“NAIDOC Week is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of promoting the cultural practices and learnings of Indigenous Australians and this will remain central to the work we do within UNSW Bushfire,” Prof. Sharples said.

Visit the UNSW Bushfire website for more information about the research being conducted at UNSW.