The extensive use of fire by Aboriginal people across Australia was recorded and documented by early European explorers. Not only did the explorers record the presence of widespread fire but they also blamed it for damaging the landscape.

What did early explorers have to say about fire? Here are some quotes from early explorer diaries and records.

The natives were about, burning, burning, ever burning; one would think they … lived on fire instead of water.’ Ernest Giles (1889), Australia Twice Traversed.

The natives set fire to the grass which is abundant everywhere, and at that time is quite dry… The conflagration spreads until the whole country as far as the eye can reach, is in a grand and brilliant illumination.’ Report from Port Essington, in Arnhemland.

Captain James Cook wrote that his crew ‘saw upon all the Adjacent Lands and Islands a great number of smokes — a certain sign that they are inhabited ... '

... the very extraordinary devastation by fire which the vegetable productions had suffered throughout the whole country we had traversed – George Vancouver.

I wish it would rain and cause the grass to become green, so as to stop them burning... – Stuart (1865).

Activity: Early accounts of burning

What did early settlers have to say about burning?

You can also have a look at the quotes in Pyne (1991) (p.102 onwards), and use these to answer the questions below.

  1. How accurately do you think these accounts portray the use of fire?
  2. Do you think the Europeans understood why the Indigenous community was burning?
  3. What kind of emotions do these statements portray?
  4. Describe how you think Europeans perceived the fire in the landscape — consider the language used.


Pyne, S.J. (1991) Burning Bush: A fire history of Australia, pp.102~. Holt, New York.

Aboriginal people would have burnt, and still do burn, for a variety of reasons. These include:

  • cultural purposes for ceremonies
  • for hunting
  • cleaning up the land
  • ease of movement through the country
  • to favour certain foods and other resources
  • for signalling
  • for warmth during the winter months

The Aboriginal 'tool-kit' was based on the skilful use of controlled friction and tinder. Methods included rubbing a woomera (spear thrower) against a wooden shield or log while adding tinder and blowing. Another technique was the fire drill which involved a spinning rod in a cavity creating frictional heat.

With the arrival of Eurpoean settlers in the late 18th Century traditional Aboriginal burning practices were severely disrupted. Loss of Indigenous knowledge and separation from the land has been most pronounced in southern and eastern Australia.

Activity: Settler impacts on burning

Is there evidence for settler impacts on burning?

In Western Australia changes in burning regimes since European settlement have been investigated by a group of scientists. They were able to use grasstrees to determine the fire history for a 250 year time period which includes pre-and post-European settlement.

Ward et al. (2001) details the fire history findings from this grasstree study. Particularly have a look at Fig. 4 on page 327.

  1. How did fire frequency change over the 250 year period and what caused these changes to the fire regime?
  2. How did events like disease influence burning regimes?


Ward, D.J., Lamont, B.B. & Burrows, C.L. (2001) Grasstrees reveal contrasting fire regimes in eucalypt forest before and after European settlement of southwestern Australia. Forest Ecology and Management 150: 323-329.

Largely as a result of European misunderstanding and fear of fire, fire suppression rapidly became the dominant paradigm in fire management; in most areas there was a large shift away from traditional burning practices.

In northern Australia, the disruption of traditional burning practices means that many areas (e.g. the Top End) are now prone to extensive wildfires that sweep through the country late in the dry season.

Return to top of page ^