SPOKANE, Washington — Each year, worsening air quality due to wildfires impacts the health of millions of people, with disproportionate effects on people living in poverty. To address the situation, Australia has begun a return to indigenous fire management. The nation has seen firsthand how the practice of cultural burning in Australia can protect both people and the environment from uncontrolled wildfires.
Cultural Burning in AustraliaEdit date and time
In regions managed by indigenous communities, infrastructure and vegetation are protected from rampant fires through a process known as cultural burning. Cultural burning is the indigenous practice of lighting fires that burn slowly, at lower temperatures and during safe times of the year, which can prevent larger wildfires in the dry season.
Cultural burning in Australia operates with the understanding that fires are necessary and valuable to maintaining the land. The practice is well established in Northern Australia, where fires are intentionally lit to burn off excess ground cover that is usually dry and highly flammable. Cultural burning helps allow new vegetation to sprout up in place of dead vegetation.
Western Ideas of Fire Suppression
Indigenous people have been practicing cultural burning in Australia for centuries, however, this changed with the British colonization of Australia in the late 1700s. While cultural burning prevailed in Northern Australia, in the south, large colonial settlements, including New South Wales, did away with the practice. Western settlers feared fires and banned cultural burning.
Recent scientific findings point to the suppression of aboriginal fire management in this period as the single most impactful change to the landscape within “the last 10,000 years.” This long-standing disruption of indigenous land stewardship has worsened the effects of climate change in Australia, where yearly conditions have become hotter and drier than ever before.
Australia’s Black Summer
In the past two years, the impact of fires in Australia has increased tenfold. The 2019 to 2020 dry season fires in Australia caused devastation that was collectively referred to as Black Summer. During Black Summer, thousands of bushfires burned 46 million acres of land. The fires engulfed more than 3,000 homes and killed 33 people while another 417 deaths have been linked to poor air quality due to hazardous smoke.
Most of the Black Summer fire damage fell upon the southern states, particularly in New South Wales (NSW). More than 75% of the total lives and homes lost from the damage occurred in NSW. Far less damage was apparent in the northern regions, where indigenous fire management is common practice.
Today, more than 800 indigenous ranger groups widely practice cultural burning in Australia. Although cultural burning is largely accepted in Northern Australia, new training programs seek to expand cultural burning practices south to vulnerable states, including NSW, where fires have had a greater impact on the population.
An indigenous-led organization known as the Firesticks Alliance has partnered with a regional government agency in NSW to pilot a program of 30 trainees. The 2021 program is developing the practice of cultural burning for land ecology and fire management in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities. The partnership between indigenous leaders and NSW’s local government aims to develop a curriculum that other states in Australia can adopt.
Global Impact of Fires
The 2019 to 2020 Black Summer bushfires in Australia had a profound effect on both the nation’s health and economy. While Australia makes the list of the wealthiest nations with accessible healthcare, smoke from Black Summer fires still led to hundreds of premature deaths and thousands of hospitalizations. The physical damage from the fires combined with the resulting air pollution had an estimated economic impact of $40 billion for the nation.
Basic healthcare services are scarce for more than half the world’s population, with just one in five countries estimated to have healthcare programs in place to combat the specific health risks associated with climate change, such as air pollution. The effects are greater for people in middle- and lower-income countries, who make up about “92% of all pollution-related deaths.”
The world spent $150 billion on environmental disaster relief in 2019. Many developing nations are inadequately equipped to deal with the financial strain of the climate crisis. Nations often redirect aid to address natural disasters at the expense of social programs that work to raise people out of poverty.
Blazing a Path
Communities around the globe are facing unprecedented dry seasons coupled with extremely high temperatures. In many parts of the world ranging from Africa to the Americas, traditional methods of indigenous fire stewardship have fallen away with the imposition of settler-colonial ideas of land management.
Though Australia has a similar past, increasingly severe fires in recent years have brought about a revival of indigenous practices. The government is partnering with indigenous communities to train and teach cultural burning in support of westernized methods of fire prevention. Other countries can look to cultural burning in Australia as a potential solution and to their own indigenous people for guidance in preventing the ravage of unwelcome fires.
– Angela Basinger