As I have outlined previously the evidence for Aboriginal burns in pre European times in Gippsland is slim. Unfortunately practices from other parts of Australia and the influence of some popularisers of the ‘firestick farming’ thesis (Gammage and Pascoe) has led to it being promoted as a necessary part of forestry operations in Gippsland. Many such generalisations from the particular to the whole are fallacious. Aside from the fact that we cannot turn the clock back 200 years the following should be considered.
Early Europeans did not understand the role of fire in our environment and were thus more likely to attribute the smoke from all fires as ‘Aboriginal burns’ – the origins of fire in the British environment were all man made. Many of these fires must have been from ‘natural causes’. Also once a fire had started – whatever the cause – the Kurnai would let it burn as they had little property to defend or protect.
The population of the Kurnai was much denser in favourable habitats around lakes, swamps, rivers and the coast. It follows that their use of fire was confined to the areas that they most commonly frequented, areas that are now mostly farmed and closely settled, rather than our mountain regions where forests are dominant.
The popularisers of Aboriginal burning are heavily dependent on the observations of that great Gippslander, Alfred Howitt. On this I have previously stated that “much of Gammage’s work strongly relies on a few pages of Alfred Howitt’s Eucalypts of Gippsland, yet a closer examination of his works can give you facts opposing, as well as supporting, the Gammage thesis. None of the claims Howitt made applied to East Gippsland, much of which he thought a ‘jungle’.”
Howitt is by far the best source on the pre European Kurnai and, as a rule, I follow his work – for the most part uncritically. However his notes in Eucalypts of Gippsland on burning require further in depth analysis as they are in part anecdotal, use Aboriginal information and depend on his long term observations of changing vegetation under different fire regimes. Further studies are necessary – both historical and scientific – to ascertain more details about the when, if and where of Kurnai burns. Did the Kurnai and Europeans burn different areas, and in the case of the latter, protect other areas?
Foremost in our minds should be the climate emergency and that logging and associated practices, including burning, must be ended as quickly as possible. What will be left will be small ecological burns, some local burns for protection of assets, and a massive effort to prevent and restrict bushfires wherever possible.