Bushfire is a very destructive thing, obviously.
As our forests burn around the nation we see on the T.V. images of destruction to homes, farms and of course animal habitat. Many people see, hear, smell and feel the fire as it comes into their neighborhoods. In this time of water shortage, fire is indeed a massive drain on limited resources as tanks and dams are emptied fighting fires.
But not all fire is destructive. It is fire that boils a billy and powers a car. When fire is managed it is useful to us homo-sapiens. Fire demands respect. If given the proper respect it will perform an infinite number of tasks. If fire is disrespected it will engulf the fool in its rage and destroy anything and everything until there it can find no more to destroy, or until the heavens open with a solid enough rain to extinguish the beast’s anger.
We cannot avoid fire in an attempt to protect ourselves from it’s potential, for if we do, as we did for decades, the dead leaves, twigs, branches and logs that fall eternally to the ground in the bush build up to a point where they will fuel massive unstoppable fires that will invade any town or nice leafy suburb, devouring all that is unable to get out of its way.
Anywhere around the world, especially in Australia, if we are to undertake large scale reforestation programs for climate change or any other reason, we are going to have to deal with fire management. If we build bigger and bigger forests, which we must, we will lose them in super fires if we leave them unmanaged, just like today’s remnant forests. I understand that super fire release much more carbon into the atmosphere than continual managed fires such as Aboriginal land management techniques.
Farmers and fire authorities have developed a regime of fire management and prevention which seem to have some similarity to Aboriginal fire management through seasonal burning to reduce forest litter. However this regime looks at fire in a one dimensional mode – the fire as a threat.
The Aboriginal method of reducing forest litter is not primarily a fire prevention strategy. Sacred campfires burnt 24 hours a day in most areas around the continent 200 years ago. Citizens would go to some effort every day to collect forest litter to keep the fire burning. When it was cold the fires kept everybody warm. The fire kept the snakes at a distance. The fire cooked the bread and meat. The fire gave light in the dark, people gathered around the home fire like we gather around the T.V. Today. Fire was central to the connection of this world and the others.
Fields were burnt to let the light through to the soil so that new plants will shoot, providing rich nutrients for the humans but also a convenient bait for kangaroos, so they come to the hunter rather than the hunter running around the country side looking for a kangaroo. Fire was a very valuable tool for those who were not foolish and respected the fire, those who understood the fire.
Where did we go wrong in Europe? I used to think that, because it gets pretty cold in Europe, people chopped down too many trees just trying to keep warm – fueling fires and building houses. But then I thought something else. Keeping in mind there were much fewer of us at the time, I reckon we survived for thousands of years keeping warm as well as using fire as our primary source of stored energy; in a sustainable relationship with the European bush. Where we stuffed up was the development of metals which required intense and prolonged fueling above and beyond the daily needs of warmth, cooking, nightlife etc. As metal technology developed, first bronze swords and then steel, tools, guns, all sorts of fittings and eventually machines, so did the demand for heat energy. It is not just the machines of the industrial revolution that increased stored energy requirements, it was also the generations of blacksmiths that preceded the industrial revolution. At this point of metallurgy, I reckon, we entered into an unsustainable relationship with the forests. It still provided food through game for thousands of years but more was being taken from it than what was being restored to it, so it began shrinking in both area as well as biodiversity.
The explosion of fossil fuel technology and the massive increase in populations around the world of course are a much bigger stuff up than the transition to metals, but one thing leads to another as they say.
I am not anti-metal, nor anti-mining or anti-energy. Everything in moderation I say, and I reckon that is a key aspect of sustainability.
Another key element of sustainability is the permaculture principle of working with nature rather than against it. This goes for fire as well. The bush is an amazing place, which for whatever reason, is feared for its snakes spiders and bushfires. We fight against it and protect ourselves from it, trying to appease it by letting it do what it wants to do in national parks as long as it leaves us alone in our own places. The pioneers struggled against the bush to establish the sheep and cow business, but we have never looked at it as a resource, only a problem to be overcome.
If we look at the bush a bit differently we might realise that it provides meat, vegetables, all sorts of medicine, building materials, clean water and yes minerals to make plastic and metal and things like that. The bush also provides an infinitely renewable source of energy through fire.
Forest litter would be much more productively used heating water or cooking food than fueling uncontrollable forest fires.
If we see the bush as a resource asset, including fire fuel, and “work” it, opportunistically manage it and expand it rather than locking it up in national parks or clearing it for cows and sheep, then we not only take leaps forward in sustainable resource systems, we also reduce the likelihood of super fires.
It is a matter of humans living in the environment again.