Reducing Fire, and Cutting Carbon Emissions, the Aboriginal Way
As blazes rage in southern Australia, Indigenous fire-prevention techniques that have sharply cut destructive bushfires in the north are drawing new attention.
Thomas Fuller, NYT, Jan. 16, 2020
Photo by Matthew Abbott
Traditional Aboriginal practices of burning, which reduce the undergrowth that can fuel bigger blazes, are attracting new attention as Australia endures disaster and confronts a fiery future.
Over the past decade, fire-prevention programs, mainly on Aboriginal lands in northern Australia, have cut destructive wildfires in half. These programs, first given government licenses in 2013, now cover an area three times the size of Portugal. Even as towns in the south burned in recent months and smoke haze blanketed Sydney and Melbourne, wildfires in northern Australia were much less severe.
These efforts draw on ancient ways, but have a thoroughly modern benefit: Organizations that practice defensive burning have earned $80 million under the country’s cap-and-trade system as they have reduced greenhouse-gas emissions from wildfires in the north by 40 percent.
They are also generating important scientific data, and are held up as a model that could be adapted to save lives and homes in other regions of Australia, as well as fire-prone parts of the world as different as California and Botswana.
“The Australian government is now starting to see the benefits of having Indigenous people look after their lands,” said Joe Morrison, one of the pioneers of the project. “Aboriginal people who have been through very difficult times are seeing their language, customs and traditional knowledge being reinvigorated and celebrated using Western science.”
In some ways, the Aboriginal methods resemble Western ones practiced around the world: One of the main goals is to reduce underbrush and other fuel that accelerates hot, damaging fires.
But the ancient approach tends to be more comprehensive. Indigenous people, using precisely timed, low-intensity fires, burn their properties the way a suburban homeowner might use a lawn mower.
The preventive fires must be timed according to air temperature, wind conditions and humidity, as well as the life cycles of plants. Northern Aboriginal traditions revolve around the monsoon, with land burned patch by patch as the wet season gives way to the dry.
The pioneering defensive burning programs in northern Australia came together in the 1980s and ’90s when Aboriginal groups moved back onto their native lands after having lived in settlements under the encouragement, or in some cases the order, of the government.
Depopulated for decades, the land had suffered. Huge fires were decimating species and damaging rock paintings.
The Aboriginal groups ultimately teamed up with scientists, the government of the Northern Territory and the Houston-based oil company ConocoPhillips, which was building a natural gas facility and was required to find a project that would offset its carbon emissions.
According to calculations by Mr. Edwards, wildfires in northern Australia burned 57 percent fewer acres last year than they did on average in the years from 2000 to 2010, the decade before the program started.
California Today: Native Solutions to Big Fire
Thomas Fuller, NYT, January 24, 2020
Photo by Alexandra Hootnick
As many parts of the world grapple with how to reduce destructive, out-of-control wildfires, Native North American burning techniques have come into the spotlight, as well.
The experience in northern Australia has been critical. Researchers have used satellite data to calculate that an Aboriginal burning program started seven years ago has cut hot and destructive wildfires in half and reduced carbon emissions by more than 40 percent.
With California’s Could something similar be done in California?
Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok, California’s largest Indian tribe, traveled to Australia two years ago and saw many similarities with her own cultural burning practices.
In 2014, Ms. Robbins helped organize a burn of seven acres on the Yurok reservation. A crew of 20 prison inmates brought by Cal Fire worked with the tribe to conduct the burn.
“The No. 1 priority for our community was to bring fire back to the land. The land needs fire in order to be healthy,” said Ms. Robbins, a basket weaver who relies on the long and pliable shoots that emerge from burned hazelnut bushes.
The Nature Conservancy assists with a yearly controlled burn on the Yurok reservation in Northern California. The 2014 burn rekindled the tradition and now happens every year.
Don Hankins, a fire expert at Cal State, Chico, estimates that, at most, a few thousand acres are burned in California every year using traditional cultural burning techniques. This is tiny compared with the Australian program, which covers close to 90 million acres, around the size of Montana.
But Mr. Hankins and tribal fire experts say there seems to be an appetite in California to better understand and expand tribal burning practices. Native American burning traditions are similar to Aboriginal ones in the way that they look to nature for signals on when to burn.
Mr. Tripp says it is crucial not to interrupt natural reproductive cycles with fire — nesting birds, flowering plants — but to burn in ways that encourage growth of critical plants like hazelnut bushes and acorn-bearing oaks.
As with other Native fire experts, Mr. Tripp, who is deputy director of the Karuk tribe’s Natural Resources Department, says he is working with the National Forest Service, Cal Fire and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to obtain more sovereignty over fire.
Also, “Spotlight On” the Walking Stick Insect
From the Ancient Greek phasma, meaning “a phantom,” the Walking stick, or Stick insect, is a master at disappearing into its surroundings. This insect and its cousin, the Leaf insect, are normally green or brown. Also useful in self-protection is its ability to enter into a motionless state that can be maintained for a long period. The only predator from which the Walking stick has no defense is the bat, which hunts by echolocation.
Only certain species of animals can reproduce by parthenogenesis, most notably insects, but also reptiles, and it was recently discovered, sharks. This is the process by which an unfertilized egg produces an offspring. (From Volume 2, Staghorn Sumac)
And finally, another plug for my self-published books about North American trees,
Secret Voices from the Forest, Thoughts and Dreams of North American Trees
Available at Amazon.com
See ya tomorrow.