In 1891, shocked by the settlers' attitude to the natural vegetation, Reverend Samuel Dixon wrote: “The farmer, the squatter, the miner and the swagman all cause extensive conflagrations, and by their oft-recurrence the arborescent growths are reduced to mere scrubs, and the more tender plants are utterly destroyed with a recklessness which can only be fittingly described as insane.'
Unhindered by neighbours, lush grass or conscience, the simple match set up a culture of fire, which is firmly perpetuated today by a stream of official documents pointing out how Aboriginals burned the land, so the bush must now be burned to stay healthy.
A far more accurate guide to the extent of fires in Aboriginal times would be Joseph Banks' diary, in which, on first seeing the sweeping, forested panorama of the Australian mainland, he noted- “..a complete absence of smoke from fires.” (22 April 1770)
Ancient Gondwana forests, accustomed to the odd lethal lightning strike, had had to change to survive the first Australians' different fire regime. But they never had to endure the savage treatment of the last 200 years.
Burn a fertile seed or tender seedling and it is dead, a growth-cycle lost. Burn often, and the only plants that return are those that reproduce underground, have buds protected by thick bark, or have very hard seeds. Tough, dry plants, waiting in a layer of fallen leaves and tinder-dry killed stems for the next fire.
To encourage a return of the original cool, triple-layer, fire-resistant forests would be in everyone's best interest. But it would need a painful change in traditional viewpoint. It would need acceptance that generational burning has been harmful. It would need a change in terminology, from fuel loads to shaded soils and mulch, from fire hazard and rubbish to cool, natural bushland; from hazard reduction to simpler asset protection.
Creek lines need to become again the fire-retardant protective network evolved by nature, not mere convenient sections of green pick and water for cows.
And we need to stop burning the bush, just because we are afraid of fire
- P Edwards
This article was published as "Hold your fire: restore fertile seeds of forest" as the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on 15th April.