Historical experiences of fire

Environmental historian Tom Griffiths emphasises the active interplay of ecology and society in Australia. He argues that culture and social values not only help shape how we respond to natural phenomena, but how we see those phenomena in the first place. The social ecology of fire, he asserts, is as potent as fire itself. Writing of the Black Friday Fires in Victoria in 1939, he says:

… Black Friday, like the long drought of the 1890s, emerges as an intriguing artefact of nature and history, a cultural exaggeration of a natural rhythm. Even as we discover its ecological depth, we are reminded of its historical specificity. In order to understand each of these events, we have to negotiate our way through a long historical shadow and an enduring ecological legacy and neither landscape can be understood today without knowledge of the specific years that wrought such change. … So, the events not only revealed the interaction of ecology and history, they also wedded nature and society in new, active ways. And these events also helped to shape the discipline of ecology in Australia (Griffiths, 2002, pp.386-7).

In order to gain an insight into historical experiences of fire, we would like you to use the following web resources which vividly illustrate two major fire events in southern Australia.

Activity: Black Friday Fires

Are you familiar with the Black Friday Fires of 13th January 1939?

These devastating fires took place in Victoria, and have done much to shape modern attitudes to fire, as well as the current legislation, policies and institutions that regulate its occurrence in Australia. There are some tragic stories reported on the website.

We’d like you to explore this ABC website, which beautifully & respectfully captures the experience of devastating fires in Victoria in 1939.

Although you are welcome to browse freely across this site, specifically have a look at the following:

  • Using the ‘Map’ feature of the website, look at the total area that was burned in these fires
  • Using the ‘Movie’ feature of the website, look at the images and tragic oral histories of the fires, noticing the types of fires that characterised the disaster, and the fire behaviour reported by those who experienced it
  • Using the ‘Timeline’ feature of the website, familiarise yourself with the context in which the Country Fire Authority was formed in 1945 (this organisation still exists)


Film Victoria & Moira Fahy. (2003) Black Friday. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Activity: The 2003 fires

What themes are repeating in these southern experiences of fire?

Turning now to another media outlet, The Melbourne Age, go to their feature on the 2003 bushfire season. This is a large site with many articles and links related to the 2003 fires in southern Australia. We don’t expect you to read the site in detail, but we’d like you to get a feel for the language and tone of the reporting.

  • What image of the 2003 fires do you get just by reading the headings and scanning the page?
  • Do you notice any repeating themes in the way fire is discussed, the issues reported on, in 2003 and in the past in Victoria?
  • Take note of the language used to describe fires in both these resources


The Age, Bushfire Season 2003. Accessed July 2005.

Differences between northern and southern Australia

Precedents and models for fire policy, infrastructure and laws in Australia have been shaped by the specific historical experiences of certain communities. The devastating fires in southern Australia have understandably led to fire suppression and property protection as a dominant policy objective, along with the ‘command and control’ approach to fire management. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria was formed in the aftermath of the 1939 fires. The CFA has served as a model for similar organisations elsewhere, including the Bushfires Council of the NT, The Queensland Rural Fire Service and the Fire and Emergency Services Authority WA .

Hot topic activity: Differences between north & south

How do people and country differ?

Williams (2001) provides a helpful summary of the ecology of fire, focussing on forests in south eastern Australia. Reading this article will provide a recap on the materials you have covered so far.

The article then contrasts fires used for protection and those used for management.

The article also touches upon the divergent realities between burning in northern and southern Australia. Specifically think about differences in population density, degree of landscape fragmentation, differences in climate and ecological processes, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous viewpoints.

From this article and the other sources you have encountered what do you think are the most important differences that distinguish burning issues in the north and the south of Australia?


Williams, J.E. (2001) Fire and biodiversity: understanding and managing the impacts of fire on forest biodiversity in south eastern Australia. In: Ecology, uncertainty and policy: managing systems for sustainability, (Handmer, J.W., Norton, T.W., Dovers, S.R, eds), pp. 191-208. Prentice Hall, Sydney.

Approaches to burning

Fire has had a devastating effect on people’s lives, livelihoods and property since European settlement. The following activity contrasts European and Aboriginal experiences and attitudes.

Activity: Different attitudes & different fires

How do different cultures approach burning?

In this article, Main (2004) reports on historical observations, which compare the approaches to burning of early settlers and Aboriginal people. These reflect different attitudes to burning and fires, and in turn result in different fire events and outcomes on the ground.

Read pages 1-2 of the article by Main (2004).


Main, G. (2004) Red steers and white death: fearing nature in rural Australia. Australian Humanities Review 33 (August-September):1-8.

Refresh your understanding of different attributes of elliptical, spot fires and linear front fires.

This will help you picture the fire patterns being described by the poet Mary Gilmore, which are quoted in the article.

Indigenous voices

Indigenous perspectives on burning represent a precious resource for land management in Australia. Firstly, Indigenous people are major title-holders in northern Australia, and important land managers across the whole continent.

A map of land tenure in Australia can be found at the Geosciences Australia website.

Secondly, Aboriginal communities have a rich understanding of the applications and consequences of fire in the landscape and skills in its use.

Finally, the attitudes towards fire, and motivation and contexts for its use, are a rich national cultural resource.

Activity: Aboriginal voices on burning

How do Aboriginal people understand fire?

Consider the contrasting cultures of burning of Aboriginal communities and settler society. The following readings capture accounts from across northern Australia.

As you read the articles, make notes of the:

  • expressed attitudes to fire itself
  • context and motivations for burning
  • objectives of particular fires and fire regimes


Yibarbuk, D. (1998) Introductory essay: Notes on traditional use of fire on the upper Cadell River. In: Burning questions: emerging environmental issues for Indigenous peoples in northern Australia, (M. Langton), pp. 1-6. Centre for Indigenous & Cultural Resource Management, Northern Territory University, Darwin.

Rose, D.B., D’Amico, S., Daiyi, N., Deveraux, K., Daiyi, M., Ford, L., and Bright, A. (2002) Country of the heart, ‘Cultural Fires’ pp. 21-35. Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS, Canberra.

Bright, A. (1995). Burn Grass. In: Country in Flames: Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in north Australia, (D.B. Rose ed), pp. 59-62. Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 3, Biodiversity Unit, Department of the Environment, Canberra.

Bradley J. (1995) Fire: emotion and politics, a Yanyuwa case study. In: Country in Flames: Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in north Australia, (D.B. Rose ed), pp. 25-31. Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 3, Biodiversity Unit, Department of the Environment, Canberra.

Parched Lands: AUSTRALIA - Desert Fire - Fanning the Flames Broadcast: Saturday 22 January 2005 at 8.30am. ABC Radio National.

Further reading

Hill, R. & Walker, E, (eds.) (2005) Yalanji Warranga Kaban/Yalanji People of the Rainforest Fire Management Book. Little Ramsay Press, Cairns.


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