In far north Queenland, nothing gets hot faster than a debate about using fire to look after country. Lately we’ve heard calls for more research on whether indigenous people once used fire to control undergrowth in rain-forests.
It’s generally accepted Aboriginal people used fire to clear country, reduce fire hazards and to regenerate some plant species. But there’s still limited understanding of how, when and why fire was used, and how best to learn from what was done before Europeans came to Australia.
Since European settlement, controlled burns have been used to reduce the risk of bushfires. Fires are lit ahead of recognised bushfire season, to get rid of fuel that could feed uncontrolled bush, scrub and grass fires once the fire season gets going.
In southern Australia, fire season happens in summer. But in FNQ, fire season starts at the end of winter, three months earlier than down south. The lush growth of the previous wet season has had several months to dry out, and in some years, large areas of FNQ and Cape York Peninsula burn for weeks on end.
Controlled burns are common practice here before the fire season. But there is a view they do more harm than they should because they’re lit too late in the year, when the weather is hotter and so the fires burn too hot.
Matt Trezise believes controlled burns should happen much earlier, in cooler times. Matt helps run a tourism operation on Jowalbinna Station, 36km from Laura on the old Maytown road. You can visit and stay on the station, and check out Aboriginal rock art galleries.
Matt says looking after country on Cape York is vital, but measures like Wild Rivers or World Heritage protection won’t be much use unless fire management practices change.