The Answers    Edition 12

How Indigenous seasonal knowledge can fight the fires to come

By Max Opray


Throughout this series, The Answers has reflected on lessons from individual moments in Western records of history, which only represent a small fraction of human experience on the Australian continent. 

The final edition of this series looks to lessons of the past in a different way: the thousands of years of lived experience that informs Indigenous understanding of Australia’s seasons, and the advantages this offers over a four-season cycle imported from Europe.

With a scorching hot El Niño summer forecast this year, and in the wake of a historic rejection of the unique insights Indigenous peoples could have shared on government policy via a Voice to Parliament, we will look in particular to how seasonal knowledge can benefit the management of increasingly intense fires

A woman standing in a grass field, silhouetted by grey smoke

Source: Michelle McKemey. Photo of Lesley Patterson involved in a burn at Ingleba, Dunghutti Country.


a) Then: Listening to the land    


        Just after the coldest point of the year in the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area in northern New South Wales, Banbai traditional owners know that male kukra can be found on the land forming lines behind females, as mating season begins. 

This knowledge provides helpful insight on the behaviour of kukra — the Banbai word for echidna, an important traditional food source. It also serves as one of multiple signs that it could be a good time to undertake cultural burning, the aftermath of which will attract grazing eastern grey kangaroos, which too can be hunted.

Banbai elder Lesley Patterson notes that this season presents one potential hazard: “You can get a lot of wind around this time, so you try not to burn on a windy day, wait for a still day.”

At a certain point after this, the growth of clematis plants — the crushed leaves of which the Banbai use to cure headache or cold — will signal that it is getting too warm to engage in cultural burning.

 “When it is starting to warm up, clematis — the common name is old man’s beard —  once that has come out it’s too late,” Patterson says.

After a lengthy hot period, the conditions start to cool again, and there shouldn’t be much wind about, representing an optimal time to burn before it gets too cold. 

The Banbai have undertaken cultural burning in these parts for millenia, managing the land to prevent much hotter and more destructive fires during the warmest periods of the year. Research has shown a raft of benefits for ecosystems — including that cultural burning impacts less on the kukra of Wattleridge compared to government-led hazard reduction burns in neighbouring areas.  

After the colonisation of Australia by the British, traditional owners were prevented from conducting cultural burns at places like Wattleridge, but in recent years Banbai have reintroduced the practice.  

The natural indicators used by the Banbai, which have been put to print in a fire and seasons calendar, are specific to the Wattleridge region, but seasonal cycles vary greatly across the contrasting climates of Australia, as do the bioindicators local Indigenous groups use to track them.

From the six seasons of the Nyoongar in the temperate southwest of Western Australia, to the three major and 13 minor seasons of the Tiwi Islands in the monsoonal north, many calendars of Indigenous seasonal knowledge can today be accessed online via the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.

A circle divided into seasons with photos of nature

Source: BOM. A Banbai Fire and Seasons calendar mapped to the Gregorian calendar.


b) Now: Europe’s ill-fitting four seasons


       The ill-fitting nature of the four seasons cycle imported from Europe has attracted the notice of non-Indigenous Australians too, leading to terms such as “sprinter” and “sprummer” to describe interim seasons that fall outside the Western system.  

The cultural associations with each season are the most obvious clue. For instance, the way most native trees, which are generally evergreens, don’t lose their leaves as per the stereotypical idea of a red autumn — the same season that jarringly features Easter, Europe’s festival of spring fertility.

Summer meanwhile features the snow-themed merchandise of a white Christmas — a dissonance that has given birth to the trend of Christmas in July. 

Ecologist Michelle McKemey, a cross-cultural specialist working with Indigenous knowledge holders to support fire management, notes that the adherence to the Gregorian calendar devised in Europe, rather than the signals of nature, has its drawbacks.

“A lot of fire agencies are required to plan hazard reduction burns months ahead, they have to book a specific day on the calendar, arrange permits and so on — but if on the day the conditions aren’t suitable, that is a lot of wasted effort,” she says. 

In some cases, these issues are enshrined in regulation. In the Northern Territory, controlled burns of savannah taking place early in the dry season earn carbon credits to reflect that they generate lower emissions than uncontrolled fires that rage out of control in the hotter conditions of the late dry season.

The early dry season officially ends on July 31, beyond which date carbon credits cannot be earnt, but McKemey and other experts have noted that this arbitrary adherence to a date on the calendar disregards the actual conditions on the ground.

“That specific fire cut-off date beyond which you can’t claim carbon credits, there’s some problems if late season Country is indicating it is in the right place. There’s no flexibility there,” McKemey says.   McKemey’s work has seen her closely collaborate with Yugul Mangi rangers in south-eastern Arnhem Land, who use their seasonal knowledge to guide controlled burns that earn carbon credits.

These rangers wait for their own biocultural indicators for signs of when to conduct burns, such as the appearance of large numbers of dragonflies and savannah grass species dropping their seeds. 

“The [Indigenous fire management] calendars are about adapting to what land and ecosystems are telling people,” McKemey says. “The seasons aren’t set in stone, biocultural indicators are always shifting, so rather than saying on the 1st of May they start this burn, no, it’s when they observe the grass drying off, they know it’s a good time to burn — that’s the adaptiveness we need going forward.”  

A woman wearing hi-vis gestures at a fire

Source: Michelle McKemey. Photo of Lesley Patterson involved in a cultural burn on Anaiwan Country.


c) Refinements: A key defence against climate change


        With climate change disrupting natural patterns, Indigenous seasonal knowledge can provide insights on how ecosystems are diverging from their usual cycles, and what the flow-on impacts are.

And with fire seasons getting longer, more intense and more unpredictable, reliance on natural indicators rather than dates on a calendar could prove more valuable than ever.  

By allowing for more effective cultural burns, in some cases seasonal knowledge offers direct protection from the flames. 

In what would come to be known as the Black Summer bushfires, unseasonably hot spring conditions drove huge fires through northern NSW in October 2019. 

The massive fires however spared an ancient Banbai rock art site at Wattleridge — rock art that depicted the kukra. 

“Before that big bushfire, we did a local burn around the rock art,” says Patterson.  “When the big fire did hit, that cool burn saved the site.”

Patterson pauses in a moment of reflection. “It’s put me in the mood, actually, to check out if there is any more rock art around,” she says. “See what else we can find out there.”

This was the final edition of this series of The Answers - thanks for reading along. You can find the full series here. For more on Indigenous knowledge and our changing seasons, we have included further reading below. 


d) Further reading:


NOV, 15 (TM)

SEP, 23 (TM)

The summer ahead (Joëlle Gergis)


AUG, 23 (TSP)


OCT, 23 (TSP)


The Indigenous Knowledges Systems Lab (Jack Manning Bancroft)


Max Opray

Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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