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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia should be aware that this website
may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons. 

We acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the traditional custodians of the lands now known as Australia and particularly acknowledge the peoples of the Yuin nation where this research takes place. We acknowledge their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. We are particularly grateful for the generous support and guidance by the Yuin project mentors and research collaborators. 


The region chosen for this case study on cultural-burning is known as Yuin Country on the South Coast of New South Wales (NSW) . Why? Because it was one of the worst affected areas during the 2019/20 bushfires (wildfires) and because NSW in general and in South Eastern Australia in particular the practice of cultural fire is underutilised compared to other areas in Australia (1). This situation reflects the land ownership and governance systems shaped by the continuing impact of dispossession and displacement of Aboriginal peoples from their lands since colonisation began in Sydney in 1788 and the early 1800s in Yuin Country. 

There are various maps showing Yuin Country in slightly different ways in terms of how far north and south in NSW and Victoria it reaches. For example, the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia shows Yuin Country from around the Jervis Bay area to Eden in NSW. The ANU's Living knowledge map shows Yuin Country from just South of Wollongong reaching all the way to the Victorian border. Other descriptions of Yuin Country extend across the Victorian border to  just north of Mallacoota (2). The AIATSIS map represents the language, social or nation groupings of Aboriginal Australia as recorded from the early years of colonisation. Each nation grouping, like Yuin Country, in turn includes numerous clans, dialects and languages.  In many of these maps the boundaries are blurred to indicate that there were no hard boundaries or borders as they mostly follow the historic language distributions. Yuin Country itself has some 13 clans and at least 4 different languages.

There is also a registered Native Title Claim for most of the Yuin Country area. The proponents of the claim are gathering evidence to substantiate continuing connection to Yuin Country, which is a process that can take decades.  The removal of Aboriginal communities from their lands during colonisation and separation of children from their families has caused lasting intergenerational trauma and great challenges for Aboriginal communities to prove their connection to specific lands. 



As we highlighted on the Place(s) page, a place is where everything connects - people, land, waters, animals and more-than-human entities. From this mutual interaction emerge laws, cultural practices, language, spiritual beliefs, livelihoods and identity. 

This kind of place is what Aboriginal peoples call Country. It includes the lands, waters and seas to which Aboriginal people are deeply connected. As Jude Barlow, Ngunnwal Elder explains:


‘Country is everything. It’s family, it’s life, it’s connection’

Country can also be experienced as teacher who communicates and maintains ownership of knowledge and processes. As Anthony McKnight suggests, developing the understanding of a respectful reciprocal relationship with Country as teacher is a great skill to learn. [3] He suggests to communicate with Country


‘Country cannot be seen in the same light as “the environment,”

in which humans place their own meaning of place in labelling

the landscape.

Country is a living fusion of living entities, including Mother Earth, and like any human she has roles and responsibilities, so that people must ask of a particular Country/place, “who are you?' [3]

However, most of the multi-cultural Australian settler society see place and land as something to be owned, to be used for economic gain but also for conservation and recreation. 


As mentioned on the Practices page, cultural-burning is an Indigenous practice using cool fires to care for Country and kin. Cultural-burning is characterised as fire that is 

  • Deliberately lit as a cultural practice for social, ecological and spiritual reasons

  • Practiced by Indigenous peoples

  • For the purpose of caring for Country and kin

  • Based on a relational worldview, recognising Country as knowledge holder, and cultural fire knowledge requiring the skill of 'listening to and reading Country'

  • Small scale cool fires – patch burning that fosters regrowth of grasses

  • Release small amounts of carbon emissions and prevent large scale fires and carbon emissions

  • Community inclusive - Aboriginal families and communities including all generations participate

  • Conducted by Elders and/or Aboriginal rangers trained in the fire lore of specific Country type

  • Beneficial to Aboriginal communities and individuals well-being by being able to fulfil cultural and spiritual responsibilities to care for Country and kin.

Every landscape or type of Country has its own specific type of cultural fire practice and knowledge system. The practice involves ‘cool’ fires that can reduce fuel loads (leave and bark litter) in  bushlands (forests). However, hazard reduction is not the primary purpose of cultural-burning nor is the view of fire as a hazard aligned with the Indigneous view of fire as healing. One example of a Cultural Fire Knowledge Map (see p.273 of [4]) based on knowledge of the Kuku Thayapan Elders in Queensland, highlights the many dimensions that are considered in cultural fire practice. This kind of map highlights, how 'reading Country' requires skill that that can only be learned and practiced over a lifetime of lore passed down from generation to generation. This intergenerational practice is greatly challenged in Yuin Country where Aboriginal people were displaced from their Country, children separated from their parents for many generations and languages nearly lost. However, stories and lore are continually remembered and fire knowledge is being revived throughout Yuin Country and is fuelled by public interest in cultural-burning since the devastating 2019/20 fires. 


In comparison hazard reduction or prescribed burning are conducted by government agencies such as the Rural Fire Service, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Corporation, Local governments or by private land holders and are characterised as fires that are

  • Deliberately lit to reduce fuel loads 

  • Practiced by government agencies and private land holders 

  • For the purpose of risk reduction to prevent large scale bushfires

  • Based on ‘Western’ and scientific knowledge systems, i.e. government sets % targets of areas to be burnt each year within National Parks, or on local knowledge among settler land holders

  • Often large scale hot fires with major impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems and soils, fostering regrowth of specific shrubs and undergrowth that can tend to increase fuel loads

  • Depending on scale can release significant amounts of carbon emissions

  • Highly restricted and mostly exclude any community participation, except for fire trained agency staff and RFS volunteers



Ethics approval for interviews with non-Indigenous stakeholders was received from Cardiff University in Aug 2022. Approval for interviews with Indigenous stakeholders was received from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in early April 2023. Interviews with non-Indigenous land managers and land holders in Yuin Country started in October 2022 and with the Indigenous stakeholders and fire practitioners in April 2023. Currently 19 interviews have been conducted and these will be followed up with a workshop later in 2023 or early 2024. The Yuin Country case study report will be prepared and reviewed by stakeholders during 2024.  




REFERENCES 1.  McKemey, M.B, Costello, O., Ridges, M., Ens, E.J , Hunter, J.T. and Rei, N.C. H. (2020) A review of contemporary Indigenous cultural fire management literature in southeast Australia, EcoEvoRXIV  2. Harrison, M.D and McConchie, P. (2009), My People's Dreaming - An Aboriginal Elder speaks on life, land spirit and forgiveness, Finch Publishing, Warriewood NSW, Australia  3. McKnight, A. (2015), Mingadhuga Mingajung: Respecting Country through Mother Mountain’s stories to share her cultural voice in Western academic structure, Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 44:2, pp.110-124 4. Standley, Peta-Marie (2019) The importance of campfires to effective conservation. PhD Thesis, James Cook University

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