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The Things We Love Are Flammable (Restoring Our Valley)

For over 60,000 years Indigenous fire regimes shaped the land. The Australia we know and love; with its mosaics of diverse habitat interspersed with deep rivers and ancient valley-tops, was built on the back of its original custodians. Not sheep. [1]

The intricacies of Indigenous fire regimes are really hard for me to understand. It's more than just science. It's culture. Much of which has been purposefully erased, or "forgotten" from our nation's history. This has had a detrimental impact on our landscape - but it's been happening so slowly that you'd barely notice it in your day-to-day life. So we need to stand back, and take a generational perspective.

Shock and horror! The thick, dry scrub you see around much of greater Sydney has only recently become the norm. It wasn't always so prickly. Yet this scrub is what many of us picture when "the bush" is mentioned.

~100 years ago, people rode horses through many of these areas relatively unimpeded. I suppose you still could if you and your horse were wearing full suits of chainmail.

Bill Gammage's book "The Greatest Estate On Earth" [2] provides another poignant example of this long term change in landscape:

“South of Hobart, Abel Tasman saw land ‘pretty generally covered with trees, standing so far apart that they allow a passage everywhere . . . unhindered by dense shrubbery or underwood’. This is dense forest now: why not then?”

The answer can be very complicated. Once you begin your journey down the wombat hole of Australian land management, you will never stop. So I'll put it simply: we're not managing our land properly. "The bush" as we know it was shaped and regulated by 60,000+ years of Indigenous management. Now it isn't. So it's changing. Gammage [3] characterises Indigenous fire regimes as:

"planned, precise, fine-grained local caring.”

Each sort of habitat; whether it be dense forest, open grasslands, or dry desert had its own management plan. Different fires for different places. This ensured that every species received the care it needed to flourish in its own habitat. This gave kangaroos their grassy plains, kept rainforests wet, and gave quolls complex habitat mosaics to find prey in.

Biodiverse Habitat
Some delicious habitat in remote NSW.

Indigenous management once served as the foundations for Australia's house of biodiversity. Now that house is on fire. Land clearing, changes in land management, and a variety of other factors have led to Australia holding the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world. [4] And it's not slowing down. Cultural burning is just one piece of the puzzle.

Every Aussie and their grandma have become experts on fire and land management since the 2019/20 bushfires. It makes Christmas lunch a veritable minefield. The fact that there is no "silver bullet" solution makes things all the more difficult. But we all know that something is wrong.

So should we all head out into the bush with our BIC lighters, and have a crack at having our own cultural burns? Nah mate. That's a dumb idea. You'd need to have 60,000+ years of practice first. A better idea might be to let Indigenous fire experts do what they do best. [5] And while we're at it, stop mucking up the delicate balance of flora and fauna that remains relatively undisturbed. I could go on and on about how land clearing is a lose-lose situation for everyone, but that's another topic altogether.

Restoring Our Valley

It doesn't matter how much you love the bush - it will always be flammable.

I grew up in the bush near Yengo National Park. When I wasn't at school or university; I was there. Kookaburras were my alarm clock, and gum trees were my jungle gyms. Our family property is where I encountered my first wombat, and mounted many expeditions into the sandstone country in nearby national parks. It meant as much to my Dad as it did to me. He's a horticulturalist at heart, and could rattle off any number of latin names for the various plants growing in his wild nursery.

The last cheers.
The last cheers.

As the fires approached on an ominously quiet Sunday afternoon, we sat on the balcony of our little bush house and had a cuppa. We thought it would be the last time we'd be able to take part in this tradition. The grass around us was brown. The eucalyptus leaves that drooped over our roof were dry. Our valley was about to burn. And burn it did.

It doesn't matter how much you love the bush - it will always be flammable. All we can do is mitigate the intensity of the burn. Supporting productive, undisturbed, and biodiverse native habitat is one of the best ways of doing this.

Thanks to some legendary firies, our little house survived the back-burning blaze. So did some of the dark, moist undisturbed forests on the valley-side. The same cannot be said for the grasslands where I met my first wombat, or the shady understory where Dad grew his plants. Most of that was now a thick, smoking layer of ash that cloaked the floor of our blackened valley.

Aftermath of the bushfire.
The bush will bounce back. But it will never be the same.

In the wake of the fires, my Dad and I decided to give our slice of valley a helping hand. We're sprinkling weeping, burra, and kangaroo grass seeds to areas most affected by fire. These are local natives that will provide stability for soil, feed for marsupials, and habitat for small things. Once they sprout, we'll start introducing larger plants and saplings to these devastated areas. High intensity fires often promote the regrowth of flammable plants [6] - so we'll be making sure that less fire-tolerant species get a chance.

We're also building nest boxes for gliders, antechinus, possums, and microbats, as many hollow-filled trees collapsed in the fires. We're doing our part for our fellow Aussie mates. It's not enough to reverse the effects of land clearing, species loss, or changed fire regimes; but it's a good start.

The things we love are flammable. Australia doesn't need a few land owners managing their land perfectly; it needs a lot of us giving it a good crack all across the nation. From suburban backyards to treeless paddocks out in the sticks. You can only do what you can do, as my Dad would say. So let's do our best.

Want to protect and conserve existing habitat? Consider contributing to an organisation like Bush Heritage.


[2] Bill Gammage, "The Greatest Estate On Earth", pg.46

[3] Bill Gammage, "The Greatest Estate On Earth", pg.39

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