Skip to content

Aboriginal Land Management Using Fire

Aboriginal people apply their knowledge of the environment, including the landscape’s unique geology, vegetation, precipitation (rain) patterns, seasonal variations, weather and wind.

Prior to colonisation, Aboriginal people would have set fires in the woodland now situated at the Australian Botanic Gardens Mount Annan to burn through prickly shrubs and dry grass, and to flush out kangaroos or wallabies in order to hunt them. After the fire, it’s easier to walk through the woodland, with shrubby obstacles removed. Later, after some rain, grasses re-sprout, attracting kangaroos and wallabies to graze on the new growth and congregate in the burnt area. Fire made hunting easier and prevented bushfires from becoming the problem that they are in modern times.  

All around Australia, people work very hard to prepare for bushfires that cause destruction to both natural and human-made environments. Fire brigades from the RFS use conventional methods called ‘back burning’ and ‘hazard reduction burning’. Whereas many Aboriginal people use traditional methods called ‘cultural burning’, ‘fire stick farming’ or ‘cool burning’. 

Watch the three videos below to understand the similarities and differences between traditional and modern land management methods. 

Cool Australia “How to conduct a cool burn” (2014)  

Cool Australia “The problem with hot burns” (2014) 

“Traditional land management is a part of an ancient relationship between Indigenous people and their country. Cultural burning traditions created a landscape that not just suited the needs of its people, it benefitted the plants and animals. Across Australia where the tradition of Indigenous land management has ended or been interrupted, so has the benefit to the plants, animals and people”
 Darren Charlwood, Aboriginal Education Officer, Botanic Gardens & Centennial Parklands  

Activities - Aboriginal Land Management Using Fire

1. Compare the pair

Think about the similarities and differences between the two methods of fire management seen in the above videos. Use this Venn diagram template to summaries them. Teachers please note, more details are available in the Teacher Resources to assist with this task.


2. Ask some inquiry questions

  • What happens when a bushfire comes through? What happens after? 
  • Why is it called ‘cool burning’ when fire is definitely very hot? 
  • What colour is the smoke of the cool burn? What colour is the smoke of a bushfire? 
  • Are cool burning and fire stick farming different names for the same thing? 
  • What is the difference between hazard reduction and back burning? 
  • How are animals impacted by each method? 
  • How are people’s homes and communities impacted by each method? 
  • There are pros and cons to each method of land management with fire. List some of these and discuss how the issues may be overcome.  

3. Work together

Roleplay as ‘Conservation Kids’ to present your arguments on the use of fire for land management. Buddy up with a friend and go ‘door knocking’ like the Banana Women. First, name yourselves (e.g. The Apple Kids, The Banksia Boys etc.), then decide on a point of view and prepare some convincing arguments for why people should join you to help tackle this environmental issue. Finally, go ‘door knocking’ on your classmate's desk to tell everyone about your group and why they should join you. If you’re successful, then you’re being active conservationists. 

4. Do a dance

Be creative and prepare a dance that represents being responsible with fire, using either the cool burn method or controlled burning. For inspiration, view a performance by Aboriginal dancers at Bangarra Dance Theatre below.