Savanna Explorer > Arnhem Land > Fire > Traditional Burning Practices

Traditional use of fire in central Arnhem Land

by Dean Yibarbuk, Bawinaga Association and Peter Cooke, Caring for Country Unit, NLC
from Savanna Burning—Understanding and Using Fire in Northern Australia , Tropical Savannas CRC, 2001

Yalawanga’s painting shows Karrakanj, the brown falcon, picking up a smouldering stick from a burned patch of ground and dropping it into dry grass on theother side of a road.
"It's not just people who light fires," says Aboriginal artist Billy Yalawanga from central Arnhem Land. Yalawanga’s painting shows Karrakanj, the brown falcon, picking up a smouldering stick from a burned patch of ground and dropping it into dry grass on theother side of a road. "It doesn’t matter if a creek or road pulls that fire up, because Karrakanj is hungry for more insects from the fire. Karrakanj lights a new fire so he can get more food." Across northern Australia, many Aboriginal people, and some non-Aboriginal people, say they have seen this happen. 

The secret of fire in our traditional knowledge is that it is a thing that brings the land alive again. So we do not necessarily see fire as bad and destructive it can be a good thing and bring the country back to life. But it is not a thing to play with unless people understand the nature of fire.

A child's first experiences of fire are being with adults and seeing fires in the landscape (manwurrk) and also the fire that is the centre of each family living area (kunrak). This learning by experience and experimentation is always going on with either the parents or other close family keeping a watchful but relaxed eye on what is happening. But as they grow, young people learn that fire is more than just something for cooking or hunting that it has a deeper meaning in our culture. As they attend ceremonies with their parents they see and learn to respect the sacred fires that are central physical parts of the most sacred of ceremonies.

Fire and traditional culture

In the upper Cadell River area, there is a tradition of young men's initiation involving circumcision at about the time of puberty. Fire enters into this ritual also when the new young man is 'burned' with heat, smoke and steam. At the same time he is told how to behave and is warned against things that are forbidden.

Young boys and girls participate in seasonal burning on flood plains to help the hunt for goannas, rats, snakes, bandicoots, wallabies and freshwater turtles. When elders see it is the right time for burning on the plains they start to talk together. The burning is not carried out by just one clan. Neighbouring groups get together and cooperate. These relationships are also reflected in kinship between members of the groups. The burning is not just of economic significance. It also has a spiritual purpose in making the country clear of spiritual pollution which follows a death amongst the landowners.

Criteria which determine when the burn will happen include:

  • judging when the grass will burn easily, but still retains some moisture so that it doesn't get too hot. This is usually at the time we call yekke, or cold weather time around June or July;
  • wind direction is watched to make sure the fire will go wherever they want it to go. If it is floodplain burning they will keep it on the plain and drive it towards wet areas so that the remaining areas can be burned later;
  • on the flood plains there are often two periods of burning. The first is an early burn at the edges while the plains are still moist and the grass is green, and then a later burn when those grasses are dried. Because of the early burn the fire is kept out of the forest areas by this traditional firebreak.

Both men and women work together for the burning but with men moving faster and over greater distances lighting fires and women carefully coming along gathering the resources revealed on the burned areas. But there is one kind of burning which is men's business alone and it is dangerous work. This is the fire drive mainly for larger kangaroos, wallabies and emus.

There are special places where these hunts traditionally occur. In old times they happened every year. When the most senior landowner for the area where the fire drive is to be held sees that the time is getting close, he will talk with a close kinsman who, under customary law, has the responsibility for managing that area and the fire drive itself.

They discuss how the manager (or djungkay) will organise the drive: where and when it will be held and who will be invited. Messengers move out to where other family groups are living to carry the invitation.

As they go, they burn unwanted grass to send up a signal of their approach. The messengers and the invited groups then head for the location for the fire drive, again sending up smoke that marks their travel.

When all the groups have assembled and have camped a night or two and made their plans, a start will be made very early on the appointed morning. The group splits into perhaps four groups each with a couple of men. Two go in one direction and the others in the opposite, circling around until they get into prearranged positions in a sort of horseshoe shape. According to plan, one fire is lit and others, seeing the smoke, then start walking and lighting the grass as they go. When the semi-circle of flame is lit, the kangaroos are driven to where another large party of maybe 10 or 20 men are waiting with shovel-nose spears.

After the hunt the hunters come back together. They use smoke from ironwood leaves to ritually purify the game so that it may be eaten by women and children. This is necessary because the fire drive is itself regarded as a sacred and very serious act, often first enacted by the major creative beings for that area. For a young man, the spearing of his first kangaroo at an event like this is very important.

Aboriginal burning practices today

Today fire is not being well looked after. Some people, especially younger children who don't know better or who don't care, sometimes just chuck matches anywhere without thinking of the law and culture of respect that we have for fire. This is especially true for people going for weekends away from big settlements. Fire continues to be managed well around the outstations where people live all the time.

The other big problem is large areas of country where no one is living permanently now. Grasses and fuels build up, sometimes over a number of years, until one day someone's little hunting fire or a cigarette chucked out of a Toyota gets going and hundreds or thousands of square kilometres get burnt out in very hot fires. To go forward we need to encourage our children in the ways of the past. Fire must be managed and people must be on their country to manage that fire.