Cultural Burning in the ACT

The South-east Australia Aboriginal Fire Forum was held over three days last month in Canberra, where 130 people gathered to exchange and share knowledge, and participate in panel discussions and group activities around cultural burning. ANTaR ACT member Julian Brown caught up with two of the organisers after the forum to find out more about cultural burning in the ACT. Dean Freeman is a Wiradjuri man and the Aboriginal Fire Project Officer in ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS), and Darren Chong is a Waanyi man and the Aboriginal Natural Resource Management (NRM) Facilitator in ACT NRM. They belong to a network of Aboriginal staff within the ACT PCS known as the Murumbung Rangers.

According to Dean and Darren, cultural burning is complex and can be hard to define. Part of the purpose of the fire forum was to facilitate dialogue about what it is today and what it might look like in the future. For thousands of years fire was used for a range of purposes (e.g. to manage bush tucker and clean Country) by a diversity of people throughout Australia. Fire connected people to Country; fire was used to care for Country, and Country told you when to burn. European arrival disrupted these sophisticated systems of land management through both dispossession of land and large-scale ecosystem transformations that altered the way fire behaves in the landscape. Despite these changes, the philosophies of Aboriginal fire management remain. The ACT PCS now attempts to incorporate cultural burning in its fire management operations by involving Traditional Custodians, supported by the Murumbung Rangers, in designated burns. This is a step in the right direction as it ensures the right people are on Country when it’s burnt.

Dean recently led a burn at Gubar Dhaura Ochre Quarry in Franklin (see photos below). He stood alongside Ngunawal Elder Wally Bell while he set light to the dry grass for the first time since European arrival. Dean said “being entrusted to undertake cultural burns on another person’s Country is a privilege. I felt very proud as I know I am attempting to re-introduce an ancient system into a modern world. That is exciting to me as a lot of this has been ‘lost’.”

There are obstacles to cultural burning. Dean and Darren believe that if it can work in the ACT it can work anywhere, primarily because the Traditional Custodians have no formal ownership of land. They stress the need for land ownership for Traditional Custodians, and support initiatives where Traditional Custodians have better access to Country, can drive their own development, and have greater decision-making powers when it comes to managing Country including fire management. They both see a need to involve more young people to ensure inter-generational knowledge transfer continues and to help build leadership skills.

The need for cultural burning is clear. Dean and Darren have seen peoples’ self-esteem grow with the knowledge they are continuing their culture through landscape burning. The research of the Mayi Kuwayu Research Project at the Australian National University is starting to demonstrate this on a large scale. A landscape burn can be an opportunity for community to come together and for cultural knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Acknowledging and reviving traditional forms of land management is one part of the journey toward Reconciliation.






The above three images show the recent cultural burn at Gubar Dhaura in Franklin. The first image shows Wally Bell and Dean Freeman starting the fire. The second image shows the traditional way of lighting fires with small ignition points (as opposed to the continuous lines of ignition typically used today). The third image shows the fine-scale mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches that results from the traditional ‘cool’ burn approach. 


This image shows delegates at the South-east Australian Fire Forum.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Burning in the ACT”

  1. 3 questions.

    1. Does the cultural burning reduce the likelihood of large scale fires compparable with those
    of 1939 and 2003?

    2. Is cultural burning likely to restore the landscape depicted in early immigrant artists, eg.
    Tom ROberts?

    3. Is the small scale of cultural burning going to affect the long term global warning, or is
    likely to make no difference in the long term?

    1. 3 answers.

      1. Cultural burning has the potential to reduce the likelihood of large scale fires as the fine-scale mosaic it creates can inhibit the movement of large fires through the landscape by creating discontinuities in fuel. Government agencies in some states have adopted a ‘mosaic burning’ strategy to fuel management that mimics this in an attempt to prevent large, destructive fires (though under extreme climatic conditions, fuel management is less effective).

      2. Cultural burning could go some way to restoring pre-European landscapes by reinstating fire regimes native plants and animals experienced for thousands of years so can tolerate or depend on. However, due to extensive land clearing and decades to centuries of European-style agriculture there is more to landscape restoration than reinstating fire regimes (e.g. reintroducing locally extinct native species).

      3. There are examples of Aboriginal land managers combining traditional burning practices with modern techniques to earn carbon credits (, but I don’t know enough about this topic to answer your question in full.

    1. Thanks for the video Josh, a great example from the recent Tarthra fire of the potential for cultural burning to limit the spread and destruction of intense bush fire.

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