Aboriginal use of fire

Indigenous Australians using fire to hunt kangaroos. Painting by Joseph Lycett, ca. 1817. Source: National Library of Australia.

In 2018 wildfires around the globe have been dramatic, prompting headlines about the world being on fire. The 2018 fire season is unusual in that so many places are experiencing major fires at the same time. California and some areas in Australia were hard hit, but these places are used to wildfires.

The political aftermath of catastrophic firestorms in both Australia and the United States has involved commissions or parliamentary inquiries, with terms of reference that include investigation into assessing or improving fire management policies. Part of these policies is the use of prescribed burning for fuel reduction, which has a long history in Australia but less so in the United States. Prescribed burning for fuel reduction has been heavily influenced by perceived or real understandings of Indigenous burning practices.

Daniel May is a PhD student at the Australian National University and on this episode of the podcast he explores the political and cultural influences of the historical debates surrounding understandings of Indigenous fire-use in Australia and the US. His aim is to expose the rhetorical strategies and political fault lines of the interest groups, past and present, attempting to influence policy making.

Further Reading and Resources

Daniel May, “Fire in the Environment”, Stories from the Field, ANU Centre for Environmental History, 8 March 2017.

Daniel May, “Fire in California”, Stories from the Field, ANU Centre for Environmental History, 2 July 2018.

Daniel May, “Taking Fire: Understandings of Indigenous Burning and Environmental Politics in Australia and the United States, 1910-2015”, Australian Policy and History, December 2016.

Stephen J. Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (New York: Holt, 1991)

Tim F. Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (Chatswood, N.S.W: Reed Books, 1994).

Marcia Langton and Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management, Burning questions: emerging environmental issues for indigenous peoples in Northern Australia (Darwin: Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management, Northern Territory University, 1998).

Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999)

Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2011)

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu. Black Seeds: Agriculture or accident?(Broome: Magabala books, 2014).


Music credits

4 Guitarreros” by  Doxent Zsigmond

Didgeridoo And Annabloom Too” by Speck

Speculation Alley” by  Martijn de Boer (NiGiD)

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