A Time Sequence

A Time Sequence (1791-2006) of Comments on Bushfire by Early Visitors and Settlers, Present Day Farmers, and Nyoongar Elders.

By Dr David Ward (2010)

In debates over prescribed burning, some claim that frequent burning is a recent phenomenon which ‘destroys biodiversity’. It is claimed that Nyoongar people did little deliberate burning. This historical sequence of comments on fire gives a rather different perspective. Comments from NSW are included for comparison.

1791: ‘This spot was intersected with several small streams of water, yet the same marks of fire were evident on all the vegetable kingdom…it was evident, as far as we traversed the sides of the hills, that the vegetation had recently undergone the action of fire; the largest of the trees had been burnt, though slightly; every shrub had some of its branches completely charred; and the plants lying close to the ground had not escaped without injury.’
Commander George Vancouver, near present day Albany, 1791.

Note: The fact that the shrubs were not completely consumed, and the ground plants were still recognisable, shows that this must have been a mild fire, and therefore the time elapsed since the previous fire only a few years. Fierce fires, after long fire exclusion, produce a typical blackened moonscape, with hardly any shrub matter remaining.

1830: ‘A large fire made by the natives spread rapidly owing to the dry state of the grass.’
Mary Friend, Fremantle, 1830 (Noted by Dr. Ian Abbott in 2003)

1831: ‘The whole of the country, between the Conical Hills (near Augusta) and Cape Naturaliste, has been burnt.’John Dewar and Andrew Smith, 1831.

Note: There were few Europeans in that area in 1831. It was inhabited by Bibbulman and Wardandi Nyoongars.

1831: ‘I walked along a broad belt of good soil for one mile. Fire had recently gone over its surface, and left only enough of wattle shrub to show that this had been the chief production…’
Alexander Collie, King George’s Sound, 1831.

Note: Again, the fact that the wattle bushes were still recognizable as such, is evidence that this was a relatively mild, patchy fire, the sort that occurs in litter a few years old.

1831: ‘Thickets that ‘…the natives are in the habit of burning … at intervals of three years’ to drive out Tammar and Banded Hare Wallaby.’
John Gilbert, near Northam (Noted by Dr. Ian Abbott in Gilbert’s journals, in Liverpool, England.)

Note: Some quote early observations of dense thickets as evidence of long fire absence. In fact, some shrubs can grow over 2 metres in a few years. Under long fire exclusion the thickets tend to thin out underneath, as shorter shrubs die, and tall ones self-prune.

1834: ‘In December, but more particularly in January and February, the natives burn large tracts of country to catch wallabee (sic), or bush kangaroo. For this purpose they generally go in considerable numbers and select a fine and warm day, and, having fired a portion of thick scrub or grass where they know these animals to live, they watch their being driven out by the fire, and either spear them or knock them down with a short and rather slender baton called ‘toollila’… The fires when thus lighted generally proceed spreading and consuming everything in their progress, and before the coldness and dew of the night repress their fury or intervening barren spots stop their rage, overrun some square miles of surface’
Alexander Collie, Albany, 1834.

Note: Night humidity will only suppress a summer fire in light fuel.

1837: ‘The streets are of sand, mixed with charcoal, from the repeated burning of the scrub, which formerly covered the ground, on which the town stands…The Natives are now setting fire to the scrub, in various places, to facilitate their hunting, and to afford young herbage to the kangaroos…’.
James Backhouse, Perth, 1837

1837: ‘It cannot be denied that Western Australia, as far as it is known, is generally of a rather sandy, barren nature, partly owing to the constant dryness and clearness of the atmosphere and climate and to the periodical extensive bush fires which, by destroying every two to three years the dead leaves, plants, sticks, fallen timber etc. prevent most effectually the accumulation of any decayed vegetable deposit… being the last month of summer … the Natives have burnt with fire much of the country…’. Henry Bunbury, 1837.

Note: A common argument is that Nyoongars were burning with hostile intent, and this only occurred after European arrival. There are clear statements that, on the contrary, they were simply following tradition.

1840s: ‘In our journey to the south I gathered a most beautiful Stylidium in flower. For several years I have known the plant by its leaves, but I could never get it to flower. From a careful examination of the plant in various situations I have come to the conclusion that this species never flowers in perfection but the second year after the ground has been burned over. The leaves which are uncommonly beautiful became after the second year hard and rigid and apparently incapable of supplying the necessary nutrition to enable the plant to bring its flowers and seeds to maturity. I have named this species Stylidium elegans.’
James Drummond, Colonial Botanist, 1840s.

Note: Fire exclusion, even for 5 or 6 years, leads to the lockup of nutrients in dead matter, and hence starvation of many native plants. In moister climates, decay recycles nutrients. In dry Australian conditions, fire is needed.

1841: ‘The absence of fertility is naturally accounted for in a very dry climate by the summer fires passing over a great portion of the surface of the country, and preventing any accumulation of decayed vegetation.’.
The Inquirer (newspaper), Perth, 1841.

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1842: ‘During my excursions in the bush my interest in bushfires has often been aroused … Others ascribe them entirely to the blacks … who light fires all over the place to cook their food but leave them unextinguished. During the hot summer the grass dries out and becomes highly inflammable, and the leaves of the myrtaceous plants, which are full of essential oils, also get very dry. The consequence is that bushfires quickly spread over enormous areas, though without becoming a danger to human beings…’.
Ludwig Leichhardt, 1842, New South Wales.

Note: The observation that the fires were no danger to human beings is irrebuttable evidence of low fuel levels, due to a fire every few years. Recent fires (2003) in heavy, woody fuels, in long unburnt National Parks in New South Wales, were very fierce and dangerous indeed.

1844: ‘When I was a sojourner in England, I never remember to have seen Australian plants in a good state after the second or third years and that, I think, is in a great degree owing to their not being cut down close to the ground when they begin to get ragged; how for the pruning knife and a mixture of wood ashes in the soil would answer as a substitute to the triennial or quaternal burnings they undergo in their native land, I am unable to say, some of our plants never flower in perfection but the season after the ground is burned over…’.
James Drummond, Swan Valley, 1844.

Note: Drummond was a trained botanist, and traveled widely in south-western Australia. It is hard to see why he would suggest a common fire frequency of three to four years if it was not so, or if this was only true for a small part of the country.

1846: ‘I fear His Excellency will find it a very difficult subject to deal with, and impossible wholly to prevent, it has always been the custom of the Natives to fire the country during the summer season…. It would be hard to debar the Native the food Providence has placed at his disposal, by preventing the use of Fire, without which he cannot procure it.’.
Revett Henry Bland, Protector of Natives, York, 1846.

Note: Bland was one of those who said that there was no malice in Nyoongar burning.

1846: ‘…I must confess my utter inability to offer an opinion as to any effective means of controlling the incendiary propensities of the Natives. Speaking of this district I should say we have not suffered any great inconvenience from Bush fires, the Natives carefully abstaining from their practice until after the harvest is fully accomplished…’.
Lt. Col. John Molloy, magistrate and farmer, Vasse.

Note: Again, no evidence of malice.

1846: ‘In those parts of the Territory [York District] a Bush fire will, as has been proved in this season, extend for many miles, not only burning up all vegetation and thereby causing severe damage to the flocks and herds… the major part of the country to the Westward of the range being sandy these districts are only partially burnt, and as a general rule I would remark that the vegetation will only burn once in two years – Further; it seems to be about one half of the sandy land burns over by the fires annually…The fires are never general and if not intentionally lighted by the Europeans…are kindled by the Natives for the purpose of more effectually securing their game; which is captured in extraordinary numbers where a strong wind impels the fires.’.
Francis Corbett Singleton, magistrate and farmer, Dandalup.

Note: Fast moving, flattened flames, in light fuel, with strong wind, have a very brief flame residence time, cause little damage to trees, and may germinate some seeds better by radiant preheating, or by blowing downward smoke into the ground. Some present botanists, who may have seen few fires, often have no idea of the extreme diversity of fire behaviour (pyrodiversity?), from benign to lethal. Assuming that a particular species is always killed by fire is simplistic, yet is sometimes an assumption of ‘mathematical models’ of seed production, and animal populations. Current extremely intense fires completely incinerate small animals. Nyoongars must have used fire more intelligently than that, or they would have starved to death.

1879: ‘In West Australia the forest-fires are not so excessively destructive as in the eastern colonies, nor do they as there leave in ghastly deadness vast numbers of standing trees, after the burning element has swept through the woods; on the other hand the woods of West Australia are charming at all times, no lifeless trees disfiguring the landscape, all fresh and ever verdant with Zamias, Xanthorrhoeas, and Kingias remaining unimpaired by the scorching flames. Nevertheless, the bushy vegetation and underwood, and all kinds of herbaceous plants, are at least periodically apt to be annihilated in the woody country, when the bush ignites…’. Baron Von Mueller, botanist.

Note: If the forest was ‘all fresh and ever verdant’ despite fires, then the fires were obviously milder, patchier, and therefore more frequent, than today. In the ‘eastern colonies’ the Aborigines died from disease, or were driven off, much earlier than in Western Australia.

1880s: ‘ … the natives burn large tracts of country each year, to ensure the grass and herbage coming up green and sweet at the first rains, also to drive out the game for hunting purposes. All the young of the birds that nest on the ground were hatched and able to fly, also all the young ground rats were running about, so it was quite time for the man carls (bushfires) … in a few days the whole country was on fire and the smoke driving down on the station made life intolerable.’.
Edith Hassell at Jerramungup.

Note: Edith observed that women and girls did much of the burning, and the term ‘man carl’ possibly means ‘girls’ fire’.

1882: ‘There would be practically no difficulty in stopping bush-fires, but no great advantage would accrue from the attempt – sooner or later fires will come, and the advantages gained by bush-fires more than counterbalance the disadvantages. In fact, such conflagrations are frequently advisable. Leave the forest unburnt for a few years, allow the shrubs to flourish, fallen trees to thicken on the ground, with dead leaves impregnated with turpentine, to accumulate and the destruction of the aged Jarrah, the many young plants and seeds will be completed.

Allow the fires as a rule to take their course – if possible every 2 or 3 years. If you wish to preserve timber from an overgrown scrub burn the country in lanes, or on each side of a water-course; fires help to split the seed pods and make them more susceptible to the early rains. Fires South and West of Busselton travel at a rate of 3 miles per day, even not so fast.

No doubt fires in the Northern ranges require greater caution… Measures should be adopted to stay native fires on the timber ranges, particularly northwards from Bunbury. Heavy fines inflicted on persons leaving fires burning at their camps, firing the country, except at certain seasons and in certain localities, might tend to reduce the destruction of timber in this way. Permits might be granted, in the months of April and May, to burn strips of scrub between the belts of trees to improve the feed for stock and lessen danger from fire. At the South the timber country might, with advantage, be burnt every four or five years.’
Joseph Strelley Harris, Inspector General of Timber Forests.

Note: Harris was an experienced bushman, who spent much time in the company of Nyoongars.

1916: ‘The jarrah forest, like most of the Eucalypt forests, is liable to be burnt every two to three years…’.
Sir David Hutchins, International Forestry Consultant, in a well known report to the West Australian Government.

Note: Hutchins was the first to propose that all bushfire should be excluded from the jarrah forest, to enable the growth of undamaged saw logs. Previously, he was involved in planting the Troodos mountains of Cyprus with pine trees, replacing the richly diverse phrygana shrubland, which was formerly burnt frequently by shepherds to encourage new growth for the sheep. To protect his pines, Hutchins obtained a ban on burning by shepherds, so causing great hostility to British rule. In the 1950s the pine plantations near Troodos burnt fiercely, due to military activity in the fight against EOKA terrorism. Nineteen soldiers were killed.

1924: ‘In previous years the method employed to extinguish fires was direct beating with bushes, and great success attended such efforts. In the season under review, however, the conditions were more difficult, due to the increased inflammability of the bush, through protection, the exceptionally dry summer, and the strong easterly winds experienced. During the first two months of November and December, the old method was employed, and direct beating found again successful. As the season progressed, however, the conditions became more difficult (owing to the increased inflammability of the bush) and many fires, after having been beaten down and swept in the old way, were found to break out again.’.
Stephen Kessel, Conservator of Forests, Annual Report to Parliament.

Note: Only mild fires of 500 Kw/m or less (flame <1m) can be controlled by beating. Kessel’s comment suggests that this was the general situation before 1924, with light fuels, due to burning every 2-4 years.

1938: ‘Jarrah as a species is remarkably resistant to fire, a fact which has aided to support the popular contention that fires are of little consequence and can even be beneficial. Young seedlings and saplings can tolerate complete destruction of the stem above the ground and, in a short time, recover in a surprising manner, thanks to the recuperative coppicing powers of the ligno-tuber.’
Stoate, T.N. and Helms, A.D. (1938) Stocktaking in the Jarrah Bush, p.137. Forests Department, Perth. (Copy at Forests Department Library, DEC, Como).

Note: Dr. Stoate was an expert on the jarrah forest. He was awarded a D.Sc. from the University of Western Australia, for his forest research. He later became a professor of forestry in the USA.

1938: ‘Intense fires cause serious malformation in growth’.
Stoate, T.N. and Helms, A.D. (1938) Stocktaking in the Jarrah Bush, p.141. Forests Department, Perth. (Copy at Forests Department Library, DEC, Como).

1938: ‘Prior to the successful application of adequate fire protection measures [i.e 1920s], it was unusual for any area of jarrah forest to escape periodic burning by at least a light ground fire for more than 3-4 years. Such fires, however light, invariably destroy all seedlings in their first year, but once lignotubers have been developed a large proportion survive by virtue of their ability to coppice.’.
Stoate, T.N. and Helms, A.D. (1938) Stocktaking in the Jarrah Bush. Forests Department, Perth. p.125. (Copy at former Forests Department Library, DEC, Como).

1956: ‘Under dense pole stands the scrub growth is low and sparse, and in the leaf litter fires run about quietly, causing little damage to the crowns of the dominants while hastening the death of the dominated members and thus performing a useful thinning. It is obvious that fire has always been a natural phenomenon in the jarrah forest.’
A.C. Harris (1956) Regeneration of Jarrah (E. marginata). Australian Forestry, Volume 20(2), p.54.

Note: Mr. A.C. Harris was West Australian Conservator of Forests in the 1950s and 1960s.

1960s: ‘It should be remembered that there was virtually no forest area at that time which carried more than 5 years’ leaf litter and the greater part varied from 1 to 3 years. It appeared that virgin forest did not accumulate litter to any marked extent and subsequent accumulations of litter and scrub in protected compartments could not have been envisaged.’
Roy Wallace and Alan Harris. Undated, but probably in 1960s. Typed report in Forests Department Library, DEC, Como.

Note: The authors were successive Conservators of Forests.

1961: ‘Original white settlers of many years ago told me that the natives used to patch burn the bush wherever there was enough litter to burn. The primary reason for this was to make feed for kangaroos etc. It also kept down insect and other pests without affecting bird life, making a clean bush with healthy rejuvenation and very little damage.’
P.G. Riegert, Yarloop. A letter to the editor of The West Australian newspaper, Feb 4 1961.

Note: It is well known to fire-fighters that jarrah forest generally accumulates enough litter to burn again after 2-4 years.

1966: ‘… it is not unreasonable to assume that the forest was completely burnt through every 2-4 years. Even as late as 1925 the writer was able to observe three fires of this nature in unmanaged virgin forest east of Jarrahdale. These fires were alight in December and continued to burn until the following March.’
Roy Wallace, President of the Royal Society of WA and Conservator of Forests,1966.

Note: Recent grasstree cleaning in Monadnocks Conservation Park, east of Jarrahdale, has shown old fire marks at 2-4 year intervals from 1750 up to the 1920s.

1975: ‘You see, the Natives …they used to burn the country every three or four years…when it was burnt the grass grew and it was nice and fresh and the possums had something to live on and the kangaroos had something to live on and the wallabies and the tamars and boodie rat …It didn’t burn very fast because it was only grass and a few leaves here and there and it would burn ahead and…sometimes there’d be a little isolated patch of other stuff that wasn’t good enough to burn the time before, but as it burnt along perhaps there might be some wallabies or tamars …those animals didn’t run away from fire, they’d run up to it and you’d see them hopping along the edge of the fire until they saw a place where the fire wasn’t burning very fierce…’
Mr. Frank Thompson, interviewed in 1975, about his memories of fire near the south coast, before the First World War. Tape held in Battye Library, Perth.

1986: ‘That burning was done deliberately is suggested by Threlkeld’s reference to a ceremony performed in the mountains near Lake Macquarie in 1826 which involved burning a ‘large part of the country’ prior to a kangaroo hunt… There is evidence that significant areas were burnt. Thus Dawson ‘on ascending a gentle acclivity we saw the grass had been burnt as far as the eye could reach… in a few moments [we] discovered numerous footsteps of men and children on the burnt ground.’
Helen Brayshaw, New South Wales, 1986.

1998: As part of my bushfire research I sought information on fire and Aborigines from some old residents of the kwongan heath area around Dongara, Eneabba, and the Mount Adams area. Mr. Peter Summers, of Dongara, said he believed that, in the 1920s, there were ‘large groups’ of Aborigines in the Mount Adams area, and recommended that I contact Mr. Robert Downs, whose father farmed there at that time. Mr. Downs confirmed that, before the Second World War, Aborigines from Mingenew used to go through the Mount Adams area every year, shooting kangaroos, and ‘spot burning’. This burning brought up native grasses. He also mentioned feral donkeys in the area, and that they would kill zamias by ‘eating the heart out of them’.

Mr. Stan Gratte, of Dongara, remembered Aborigines, he thought called Brockman, hunting and burning in the Mount Adams area in the 1930s. He thought they burnt strips, and any place would have burnt about every 4-5 years.

I also contacted an Aboriginal Elder, Mr. Barry Dodd, of the Bundiyarra Aboriginal Resurce Centre at Geraldton. He confirmed that the Brockman family were involved in kangaroo shooting and burning before the Second World War, in the Mount Adams area.

I was contacted by Shirley Scotter, and Charlie Ellery, of the Irwin Historical Society at Dongara. They had heard that I was interested in Aboriginal use of fire, and confirmed that kangaroo shooters (Brockmans and others) used to go through the Mount Adams area before the Second World War, and burnt frequently, every 4-5 years. They burnt small strips, which ran into previously burnt areas. In Charlie’s opinion, recent fires have been less frequent, and so more damaging.

1999: I was contacted by Mr. Michael Kelly, whose family have farmed at Mingenew (kwongan heath) since the 1880s. He believes that the Yardanogo (Mount Adams) area was burnt frequently in former days, and has heard descriptions of long thin fires, sometimes with a zig-zag path. These were lit in the morning, on an easterly land breeze, and ran towards the coast, then doubled back with the sea-breeze in the afternoon. He has noted an increase in mistletoe in the kwongan, especially on prickleybark trees (Eucalyptus todtiana), and believes this is due to infrequent burning. He believes that former mild fires killed the mistletoe early in its life, and so led to the formation of tree hollows, important for wildlife. Under less frequent burning, mistletoe kills the host tree. My own observations in that area confirm that there are many dead trees. It is not immediately clear if they died from the mistletoe parasite, or from fierce, infrequent fires. This matter needs research.

1999: ‘The bush was traditionally burnt every 3-4 years.’
Aidan Eades, Chairman of the South West Commission of Elders, talking of jarrah forest, in a letter to the then Minister for the Environment. (Copy at Department of Environment and Conservation, Perth).

1999: ‘My grandfather was the first European settler in the district in 1855, and lived here until 1926. My father lived here from 1876-1966. The ecology of the timber areas of Western Australia developed over a long period of time with a summer/autumn burn every 3-4 years or as often as it would burn. Fires were lit by Aborigines or lightning. This system kept the understorey low and prevented big fires developing because of the mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas. This method of burning was carried on by the early settlers after the demise of Aborigines in the beginning of this century.’
James R. Muir, Manjimup farmer. Letter to Minister for the Environment April 1999.

2005: Some Background on Kwongan Fire: This is a response by Mr. Rob Gillam, of Irwin House, Dongara, to some questions sent by David Ward, Retired CALM Research Scientist (Tel: 08 9397 5684), concerning the Yardanogo Nature Reserve, near Mount Adams, not far from Dongara. Mr. Gillam is a farmer, and experienced firefighter with his local volunteer brigade. Yardanogo Nature Reserve is kwongan (sand plain heath), and contains some fire sensitive Banksias, namely B. prionotes and B. Hookeriana. An early explorer mentioned ‘clumps’ of Banksias in the area. A survey of old fire marks on grasstree stems at Yardanogo (also known as Mt. Adams) revealed regular 2-3 year burning from 1860 to 1900; regular 3-5 year burning from 1900 to 1939; and irregular burning at much longer intervals since World War 2.

Question 1: How long have you and your family known the general area, in particular Yardanogo Nature Reserve?
Answer: Our family came to the Irwin area in 1936. Born in 1948, I have my knowledge from mid 1960s, but have always had a strong interest, been involved with fires, and had a strong interest in the anecdotal knowledge and stories.

Question 2: Do you think CALM (now DEC) is managing fire well there?
Answer: No I believe that they allow the fuel load to build up to too high a level and when we get fires (usually from lightning) they are too big and too hot.

Question 3: If not, how could they be managed better?
Answer: Frequent strip or mosaic burning that is carried out in late winter and spring. This then burns cool and does not kill the trees. The actual scrub will always come back even after a hot fire in 2-3 years but the Banksia and Blackbutts1 take many years to grow again after big summer fires.

Question 4: Others have told me that shooters operated in that area in the 1960s, removing pigs, donkeys, goats and brumbies. Do you know anything about this? Did they camp there? If so, did they camp at any particular place? Did they burn the bush, or individual blackboys for warmth, or signals? Are any of them still around, and might remember where they camped?

Answer: To my knowledge and also a close friend who remembers the 1950s there have never been pigs, goats, or donkeys in the reserve that were in numbers to shoot. There were many (100s) of wild horses, and these used to attract shooters during the 1960s and 70s for pet meat. I don’t believe they established camps.

Question 5: I have also been told that Aboriginal kangaroo shooters (Brockmans from Mingenew) went through the area regularly before Second World War, and burnt to bring up grass. Do you now anything about this? How often did they burn? Was the grass a short annual (Austrostipa compressa)? Is this best burnt every year, or every second or third year, or at longer intervals? Did they burn big areas, or a mosaic of strips or patches?

Answer: Charlie Brockman and then with him his son ‘Bobbie’ are the Aboriginal shooters who used to roam and look after this country. They had a camp on the Milo Road about 8 miles south east of ‘Irwin House’ (my home) and from there they used to shoot all the sandplain scrub country from Irwin down as far as Moora. They were excellent horsemen and crack shots using 303s. They always shot over the horses withers, having a small gig made of two sticks tied together which they put over the horses withers then stood next to the horse and shot over the horse resting their rifle in the gig. My friend, who still owns the property where they camped, remembers them coming into camp and then selling the kangaroo skins to a skin buyer. As many as 1700 on one occasion.

The Brockmans shot during the winter and the spring and always as they went they lit up the scrub that would burn. Under those ‘cool burn’ conditions the scrub would only burn slowly and generally not burn trees. Because it was cool and the fuel load not excessive it would only burn every 3-4 years maybe 5 in some places. This meant that they always had fresh country to get kangaroos on next year. There was some limited grass that grew, but it only seemed to be there the first year after a fire (The short annual grass you speak of sounds right).

There were NOT [sic] any big summer fires then as the continual mosaic pattern of the Brockmans’ burns limited lightning strikes to a small area.

(Comment by David Ward: Coastal Blackbutt, or Pricklybark, is Eucalyptus todtiana – many dead trees of this species, plus Banksias, can be seen along the Brand Highway, where recent hot fires, after long fire exclusion, have occurred. Had such fires been the norm in the past, there would no longer be any Banksia or Pricklybark. Mistletoe may have a role in these deaths too. Local information from another source, suggests that previous light, frequent fires kept the mistletoe down, but recent long fire exclusion allows it to grow to the point where it kills the host tree.)


The Brockmans stopped shooting in the late 50s or early 60s and are now both dead. They did not shoot or burn in the summer as it was very hot and water was scarce.

2006: ‘Aboriginal people burned off every two to three years …’
Patrick Hume, Nyoongar Elder, talking of paperbark country around Forrestdale Lake, in the book ‘Forrestdale: People and Place’ by Rod Giblett (2006).

2006: ‘This particular area hadn’t been burnt for about six years and it was a very intense one. There was all these insects flying out … hundreds of them…The bush must have been full of them because it hadn’t been burnt for so long. Six years was a very long time between burns. The bush would have been burnt every few years, every two or three years:’

Ulla Hunt, member of an early Armadale settler family, talking of a bushfire in 1938, at Forrestdale Lake, in the book ‘Forrestdale: People and Place’ by Rod Giblett (2006).