Ngadju Kala: Ngadju fire knowledge and contemporary fire management in the Great Western Woodlands

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Prober, Suzanne ORCID ID icon; Yuen, Emma; O'Connor, Mike; Schultz, Les




Ngadju country covers a significant part of the region known as the Great Western Woodlands in south-western Australia. This region is nationally and internationally significant for its large, relatively intact expanses of eucalypt woodlands, shrublands, salt lake systems and mallee. To enhance Ngadju opportunities to be and work on country, and inform ecological management of the Great Western Woodlands, Ngadju Conservation and collaborators initiated this project to document Ngadju knowledge about fire in Ngadju country. The project also aimed to explore current aspirations of Ngadju around fire management. It was undertaken through a series of workshops and field trips with Ngadju during 2012–13. Historical records were also used to complement what Ngadju told us. Fire is significant to Ngadju for its many uses, from warmth and yarns around the campfire to cleaning up the country. As a land management tool, fire has a more select role in Ngadju country than in other regions such as tropical savannahs and spinifex country, where large parts of the landscape are frequently burnt. Historically, only specific, relatively small parts of Ngadju landscapes were actively burnt, to maintain open hunting grounds and camping areas, encourage green pick, facilitate travel, and protect people, important places and resources from fire. Management relevant to fire included not only the application of (usually small) fires, but also management of fuels through plentiful use of timber for campfires and sweeping or scraping up bark, leaves and dead wood around important trees or other assets. This mosaic of management was overlain on a natural vegetation mosaic, including vegetation types of differing flammability, fire sensitivity and need for fire. Large areas of vegetation in Ngadju country, such as extensive old growth woodland, the saltbush and bluebush plains, succulents around the lakes, and stony country, are fire resistant. They don’t burn much, and can provide natural firebreaks. But if they do burn they may be slow to recover, especially the old growth trees that take hundreds of years. Fire in these areas might only be applied in small patches to clear around campsites, or to clear up scrub at the edges of woodland to help protect them from wildfires. Other places need to be burnt regularly – these include the spinifex and spear grass grasslands, around the rockholes, in some types of mallee and in the coastal scrub. Only a small area needs to be burnt at any one time – perhaps the size of a football field. Finally, there is the ‘bushfire’ country such as the sandplain and mallee scrub, where wildfires are inevitable and that is often left to look after itself. Fire might be applied for specific reasons in these places, e.g. for access or to protect sacred sites, but it is best to stay away from them in summer – instead, stay in the woodlands, near lakes or on stony ground that are less flammable. Together these different fires are likely to augment the natural mosaics in the landscape, that potentially help to slow wildfires. In the old days, Ngadju lived across the landscapes in family groups of perhaps 10-30 people, rotating among rockholes and hunting grounds (to allow them to rehabilitate), travelling longer distances along the ‘Ngadju highways’ (songlines) to gatherings, and burning along the way. Decisions to light fires tended to be made locally according to need, but it is useful to consider how these might have added together at the broader scale. One estimate was there might be about 20 fires per year per family around rockholes and in grasslands (but every year is different!), and with at least 10 families in some core Ngadju areas this would be at least 200 fires. In addition were probably even more room-to-football field sized fires to clear around campsites, smoke out kangaroos, and maintain access across densely vegetated areas. This intersection of the natural vegetation mosaic with the varied uses and g

CSIRO in partnership with the Ngadju Nation, Goldfields Land and Sea Council and Department of Parks and Wildlife WA

Western Australia

Indigenous; fire; woodland

Conservation and Biodiversity

Published Version (pdf) (47.50MB)

Published Version (pdf) (10.87MB)

© 2013 Ngadju Nation and CSIRO. To the extent permitted by law, all rights are reserved and no part of this publication covered by copyright may be reproduced or copied in any form or by any means except with the written permission of CSIRO and the Ngadju Nation


Client Report (Author)


Prober, Suzanne; Yuen, Emma; O'Connor, Mike; Schultz, Les. Ngadju Kala: Ngadju fire knowledge and contemporary fire management in the Great Western Woodlands. Western Australia: CSIRO in partnership with the Ngadju Nation, Goldfields Land and Sea Council and Department of Parks and Wildlife WA; 2013. csiro:EP135694.

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