28 Mar 2009, 12:08pm
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

Anthropogenic Fire in Australia

W.I.S.E. is pleased to present a rare monograph on anthropogenic fire in Australia — Fire, Flogging, Measles and Grass: the influence of early York settlers on bushfire policy in Western Australia by David Ward and Roger Underwood — in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here].

Fire, Flogging, Etc. describes through colonial letters the traditional use of bushfire by the Noongar people in Southwestern Australia.

Before Europeans settled in south-western Australia, the indigenous Noongar people used the land for hunting and gathering. As with other hunter-gatherers in Africa, India, and the Americas, Noongars used fire as a management tool, and had probably done so for tens of thousands of years. The arrival of Europeans whose homesteads, sheds, stock, crops, pastures and haystacks were vulnerable to fire led to immediate conflict: a fire-vulnerable society was seeking to establish itself in an environment in which fire occurred frequently, and was the dominant land management practice.

The importance of frequent fire in the land use and culture of the Noongars has been set out by West Australian scholars such as Associate Professor Sylvia Hallam and Dr. Neville Green. Amongst a wealth of historical references, Sylvia Hallam noted Lt. Bunbury’s estimate of two to three years between bushfires in the parts of the south-west that he had visited in the 1830s. She also noted Major Mitchell’s perceptive comment of 1848, based on observations in other parts of Australia, that “Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence… “. Neville Green drew on observations by the surgeons Scott Nind and Alexander Collie, at King George’s Sound in the 1830s, to amplify the links between hunting, vegetation, fire, land ownership, and seasonal migration between inland and the coast. John Mulvaney and others painstakingly deciphered Captain Collet Barker’s handwriting, and gave further information on the importance of fire to the Meananger group of Noongars on the south coast.

We have discussed anthropogenic fire numerously at SOS Forests [here]. We have also posted dozens of scientific studies, reports, and book reviews that detail historical human landscape burning on three continents [here].

The study of anthropgenic fire is important because it represents a new paradigm in ecology. The old paradigm is burdened by Clementsian notions of plant communities undergoing natural succession. That set of theories is riddled with anomalies — conditions on the landscape that defy what the old theories say should be there.

An example of an ecological anomaly is the widespread presence in western forests of pine overstories and fir understories. We discussed the Mystery of the Older Cohort [here].

It is not a particularly artistic shot, but it is illustrative of the mystery of the older cohort. The picture is of the East Fork of the Hood River about 6 or 7 miles south of the community of Mt. Hood. The forest pictured is typical of the slopes in the upper watershed.

If you look carefully, you will notice there are two distinct cohorts. The older trees are ponderosa pines ranging from 150 to 350+ years old. They are taller and their tops are often broken. Up close they are much bigger in diameter than the younger cohort trees, which are mostly Douglas-fir, grand fir, and western larch. The younger trees range from 25 to 100 years old.

That presents a mystery: why was this forest dominated by ponderosa pine for 200+ years with very few of the other species present? Is it because the other species wouldn’t grow there due to climate or soils?

No, the soils and climate are just the same as they were. The other species grow just fine there. In fact, they out-compete the ponderosa pine in the younger cohort. After a stand-replacing fire, all the species germinate, but the pines are soon overtopped by the others. They get spindly and die in dense thickets.

But for some mysterious reason, there are few if any Douglas-fir, grand fir, and western larch in the older cohort. The older trees are almost pure ponderosa pine. Look carefully and you will see that. If you can’t see it, take my word for it; that’s the situation. The ponderosa dominate the older cohort, but not the younger one.

The pine dominate the older cohort because of the agency of anthropogenic fire. The First Residents burned Western landscapes frequently, which gave rise to open, park-like forests dominated by fire-adapted species.

That vegetative condition is not limited to the Western U.S. Vast tracts of South American forests and Australian bush exhibit similar ecological arrangements that can be explained only by recognition of the fact that human beings have had significant influence for thousands of years, and the principal influence has been human-set fires.

Anthropogenic fire is not my pet theory; it has been widely studied and described by many researchers including Dr. Thomas J. Connolly [here], Dr. M. Kat Anderson [here, here, here], Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen [here, here], Charles C. Mann [here], Dr. William I. Woods [here, here], Dr. Omer Call Stewart [here], Dr. Stephen J. Pyne, [here], Dr. Ken Carloni [here], Dr. Henry T. Lewis [here, here], Dr. Gerald W. Williams [here], Dr. Charles E. Kay [here, here], Dr. Robert Boyd [here], Dr. Carl L. Johannessen [here], Dr. William M. Denevan [here, here], Dr. Susanna B. Hecht [here], Dr. Bob Zybach [here], and many, many others.

The New Paradigm contends (more or less) that historical human influences were very significant and even keystone in the development of vegetation and wildlife populations. The new scientific findings are empirical, based on strong evidence on the ground as well as eye-witness accounts and oral histories.

These findings not only rewrite the science of ecology, they have significant import to modern stewardship. Restoration of ecosystems requires an understanding of historical human influences and a re-application of those influences. Without anthropogenic tending of the land, ecological transformations lead to degradation of whole ecosystems.

That degradation is often driven by catastrophic holocaust fires, unnatural and a-historical, that destroy forests, decimate wildlife habitat, impair hydrologic functions of watershed, pollute air and waterways, endanger public health and safety, and sometimes even kill people.

Over 200 people died in the Victoria fires in Australia last February. In 2003 the Cedar Fire in and about San Diego burned 750,000 acres, destroyed 3500 homes, and killed 22 people. Four years later another complex of megafires of 600,000+ acres ravaged San Diego County. There are a multitude of other examples (fires) where lack of proper stewardship in accordance with ecological and historical realities has endangered landscapes and lives, and sometimes whole communities.

The study of historical anthropogenic fire is more than an academic exercise. Our landscapes, communities, and perhaps even our lives depend on an improved understanding of the forces at work in this world. We need not be victims any longer. We can, through science and stewardship, safeguard and sustain our forests and ourselves.



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