Understanding the traditional burning practices of Australia's First Nations peoples can provide insights into mitigating the risks of wildfires and more.

In arid climates like that of Australia, the practice of controlled burning has proven to be a highly effective method to reduce the incidence and severity of bushfires, while also offering numerous benefits to agricultural productivity. In the wake of the devastating bushfires of 2019-2020, there's been growing interest in the strategies Australia's First Nations peoples implement to manage and prevent bushfires.

For thousands of years, Australia's Traditional Custodians have employed cultural (also known as cool) burning techniques, shaping the landscape in a deliberate and intricate manner. However, the arrival of European settlers brought significant changes to this finely tuned management system. Native practices were displaced by introduced ones as settlers altered the landscape to suit Western agricultural practices.

This profound shift not only transformed the physical appearance of the land but also had far-reaching impacts on its ecological balance. Understanding and respecting the traditional burning practices of Australia's First Nations peoples can provide valuable insights into mitigating the risks of bushfires, safeguarding biodiversity and improving agricultural productivity.

In contemporary Australia, several different burning techniques are employed within the agricultural sector. Often, these practices are spoken of interchangeably, and while they do share an integral central theme - reducing the risk and intensity of wildfires and promoting ecological conservation - each of these practices varies to some degree.

Types of burning

Mosaic burning, also known as 'patch' burning, refers to the planned burning of a 'mosaic' of patches (Kimber and Friedel 2015). Mosaic burning is considered best practice across expansive farmland that contains natural fuel breaks such as water bodies. For this reason, it has been recognised as a strategic land management practice and is now implemented in several government burning programs.

Fuel reduction burning focuses on minimising the build-up of highly flammable resources such as leaf litter and dead vegetation (Collins et al. 2023).

Understorey burning aims to reduce shrubs and foliage beneath canopies to reduce fuel loads, diversify habitats and allow fire-tolerant species to grow.

Agricultural (stubble) burning, the burning of crop residues, aims to improve tolerance towards pests, weeds and diseases while also promoting soil fertility and preparing for the next crop rotation (Ditomaso et al. 2017).

Hazard reduction (hot) burning is incredibly common across the Australian landscape due to Australia's dry terrain and unrelenting heat. This practice primarily focuses on minimising the intensity and spread of wildfires through controlled and intentional burning during specific times of the year. These highly controlled fires also intend to provide safety for communities and properties in fire-prone regions (Fernandes and Botelho 2003).

How does cultural (cool) burning differ?

Cultural burning sets itself apart by embracing a holistic approach, intertwining fire management, ecological rejuvenation and connection to the land (Korff 2022). Multiple small fires are lit at once, gently smouldering at low temperatures. This is the essence of cultural burning, a practice that dates back thousands of years among Australia's First Nations peoples. When burning Country, they walked alongside the fires, guiding their paths to prevent them from spiralling out of control.

Unlike conventional burning methods like hazard reduction burning, cultural burning demands careful attention and labour. But this effort is more than rewarding. Cool burning improves ecosystem health, increases biodiversity and plays an integral role in the reduction of major fire risk. It also promotes seed germination, species diversity and drought resilience. But beyond its physical role, cultural burning maintains connection to Country, and the passing on of ancestral wisdom and ceremony (Long et al. 2021).

Across the seas, indigenous communities in North America have also forged a deep connection with fire, shaping landscapes and livelihoods for generations. Like those of Australia, their practices manage fuel loads and enhance ecological harmony. Cultural burning stands as a testament to the enduring wisdom of indigenous stewardship in agriculture and land management (Long et al. 2021).

Benefits of cool burning

Amid the news and debate around climate change and achieving net-zero emissions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions has surged to the forefront of global priorities. Burgeoning carbon markets are now offering primary producers rewards for shifting to best-practice farming techniques that better sequester carbon. Leading this change is the Indigenous Carbon Industry Network (ICIN), an Indigenous-led organisation dedicated to promoting cultural burning, ecological conservation and land stewardship across Australia. With over 30 member organisations, the ICIN is paving the way for Indigenous-led solutions that reconnect communities with the land.

Collaborating with local Indigenous organisations isn't just a chance to earn carbon credits - it's an opportunity to learn from centuries of wisdom. These partnerships can offer invaluable insights that go beyond our scientific understanding, enhancing agricultural practices and connecting communities.

While mechanical fuel load reduction programs have their place, cool burning offers a nuanced approach, emphasising the importance of temperature control and timing. It's not just about reducing fuel loads; it's about doing so in a way that respects the natural rhythms of the landscape.

When to burn

Coined 'cool' burning due to the early dry period (between April and July) in which burning is best completed, fires simmer at low temperatures as plants grown through the wet season begin to dry (Reardon-Smith 2023). Regularly initiating cool burns not only prevents the build-up of highly flammable fuel loads but also nurtures the understorey, allowing a diverse array of plant and animal foods to flourish (Brack 2020). The window of time for burning is short and largely defined by several factors. Observing the growth of your natural vegetation will help you determine when burning is best.

Mature trees: Burning must not coincide with the maturity of trees ready to disperse seeds or the ripening of fruits (Korff 2022).

Burning too early: If burning occurs too soon after the wet season, you may risk the understorey being overtaken by large shrubs (Korff 2022).

Burning too late: Leaving it too late runs the risk of trees exploding in flames, leaving little but ash in its wake (Korff 2022).

Future benefits

Ample research has shown that the suppression of cultural burning practices leads to increased and more intense bushfires (Mariani et al. 2022). Because of the remote nature of many controlled burning sites, the environmental benefits and drawbacks are difficult to observe. For example, factors such as fruit production, plant diversity and the presence of parasites are often challenging to accurately evaluate (Long et al. 2021). Looking ahead, as Traditional Custodians are afforded more opportunities to engage in cultural burning practices, there arises the potential for conducting long-term studies and scientific surveys to evaluate environmental restoration. This presents an opportunity to incorporate traditional knowledge and wisdom into modern business operations and bushfire control practices, thereby creating employment opportunities for First Nations people.

Cultural burning provides both First Nations people and newcomers alike with the opportunity to work towards healthier landscapes. As with any burning technique, it demands extensive planning and a deep understanding of the environment and species being targeted. By partnering with local government authorities and neighbouring farmers, we can ensure the safety of those involved while also strengthening community ties.


Brack C (24 January 2020) Many of our plants and animals have adapted to fires, but now the fires are changing, ANU College of Science.

Collins L, Trouvé R, Baker PJ, Cirulus B, Nitschke CR, Nolan RH, Smith L and Penman, TD (2023) 'Fuel reduction burning reduces wildfire severity during extreme fire events in south-eastern Australia', Journal of Environmental Management, 343:118171, doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2023.118171.

Ditomaso JM, Brooks ML, Allen EB, Minnich R, Rice PM. and Kyser GB (2006) 'Control of Invasive Weeds with Prescribed Burning', Weed Technology, 20(2):535-548, doi:10.1614/wt-05-086r1.1.

Fernandes PM and Botelho HS (2003) 'A review of prescribed burning effectiveness in fire hazard reduction', International Journal of Wildland Fire, 12(2):117, doi:10.1071/wf02042.

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Long JW, Lake FK and Goode RW (2021) 'The importance of Indigenous cultural burning in forested regions of the Pacific West, USA', Forest Ecology and Management, 500:119597, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2021.119597.

Mariani M, Connor S, Theuerkauf M, Herbert A, Kuneš P, Bowman D, Fletcher M-S, Head L, Kershaw AP, Haberle S, Stevenson J and Adeleye M (2022) 'Disruption of cultural burning promotes shrub encroachment and unprecedented wildfires', Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 20(5), doi:10.1002/fee.2395.

Reardon-Smith M (23 February 2023) Aboriginal Burning Practices Meet Colonial Legacies in Australia, Edge Effects.