Traditional Indigenous fire management practices are not the silver bullet against megafires like those which devastated eastern Australia in 2019 and 2020, according to new fire ecology research.
Often called cold or patch burning, cultural burning is a millennia-old practice Australian Aboriginal people use to manage fire-prone landscape.
They are far cooler and slower-moving than the traditional high-intensity hazard reduction burns done by organisations like the Rural Fire Service, but take a lot more boots on the ground.
Armidale fire ecologist Boyd Wright's research throws a bucket of cold water on the idea.
"Don't assume in any system in Australia that patch burning will prevent megafires under extreme climatic conditions," he said.
"Fair enough, patch burning might prevent a fire in a winter period or a low fire danger period."
Dr Wright's research drew on evidence as diverse as satellite imagery, to Aboriginal myths and history.
While his research took place in Australia's central desert areas, he believes the lessons learned apply in the forested areas of the east.
Fires in the centre of the country happen after heavy rains create fire fuel. On the east, they happen after fuel dries out in a drought. In both cases, human intervention is probably irrelevant, he said.
Fire ecology research had been drastically underfunded for years in Australia, despite billions spent on bushfire prevention and mitigation. As a result landholders have had to give access to fire services in the name of achieving strict burning targets, without good evidence the approach will work, Dr Wright said.
"The amount of funding that has been invested in fire management is quite considerable, but the amount of funding that has been invested in fire ecology research is bloody tiny," he said.
"If management bodies are going to be going out and doing burning, they should be making sure that the fire management regimes that they're implementing are sustainable and are not in any way harming the flora and fauna, and they sadly don't invest much funding into that."
It's the same story in other Indigenous cultures with similar fire management practices, like North America where massive fires are common despite intensive land management.
Dr Wright said the simplest way to keep people safe is to move out of areas near eucalypt forests.
He said climate change is likely to make catastrophic blazes even more dangerous and common if nothing is done.
"We have a challenge in front of us as humans and as custodians of the planet. We've got to do something," he said.
"If things are looking like they're going to get out of control with climate change, and if megafires are getting worse and are inevitable, then we have to batten down the hatches and really do something about reducing the impact of climate change."
The NSW Bushfire Inquiry recommended government agencies "commit to pursuing greater application of Aboriginal land management, including cultural burning" and work closely with Indigenous agencies and communities to study the tactic. The Commonwealth Royal Commission also recommended government agencies "explore further opportunities" to use cultural burning.
Though it doesn't mitigate the risk of megafires, patch-burning remains a useful tool for agriculture, can be used to protect specific threatened locations and can have ecological benefits, Dr Wright said.
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