Colonialism and wildfires

New research shows Australia’s forests became major fire risk in post-colonial era.

Australian wildfires make international headlines every year, just as do conflagrations in California and elsewhere in North America. During the summer of 2019, 18 million hectares of forest went up in flames, an area almost twice the size of England.


Obviously rising temperatures and more frequent droughts have extended the devastated areas, but there is more. For generations, governments in Australia and elsewhere have adopted fire suppression policies that leave lethal quantities of high inflammable undergrowth as forest fuel loads waiting to ignite. When they do, thanks to a lightning strike or human carelessness, even arson, the forest explodes in flames. Inevitably, too, the fire spread upward into the canopy high overhead, causing dangerous ‘crown’ fires.


Fire danger was nothing new in either Australia or California, where indigenous peoples managed highly flammable vegetation as part of their annual routines. But as colonial rule and governance expanded, fires became a threat to be prevented or stopped. Farmland was cleared with clear cutting and intentional burning on more level ground. Forests in steeper terrain were just left alone and exploited by logging. It is only recently that we have come to realize that such long-established cultural burning practices are a highly effective way of controlling wildfires.


A recent Australian study in forested areas of Victoria and New South Wales has been chronicling vegetational change since European colonization after 1788. The research has examined vegetational change at 52 sites, using pollen grains taken from a wide variety of sites, including lakes. Before 1788, grass and herb vegetation dominated much of the landscape, with trees and shrubs covering between 15 and 34 percent of the landscape. In 1770, the British natural history artist Sydney Parkinson described the landscape along Australia’s East Coast as ‘free from underwood… like a gentleman’s park.’ Then came the British, when shrubbiness in forests in Southeast Australia increased by up to 48 percent, with an average increase of 12 percent.


The lesson is clear. The neglect of the bush since 1788, after the British invasion of Australia, also climate change, have increased the potential for larger and more ferocious brush fires exponentially. Herein lies the question of questions, not only in Australia. What steps will be taken to change today’s disastrous suppression policies?


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Image: Bushfire at Captain Creek, central Queensland, Australia.