Reconnecting With Fire: Rekindle The Flames

fire
Fire can be nourishing.

The upsurge in the human desire to reconnect with nature and our food is heartening. After the devastating bushfires experienced by so many, is it possible for humans to also reconnect with fire?

After a bushfire season like we experienced in 2019–20, with the devastating loss of lives, farm animals, bush and wildlife, the fear of fire has left lasting scars. However if we can have a better understanding of fire, then maybe we can see through its terrifying and destructive nature and identify it as a useful tool that can bring healing.

Evolution

When early humans began to control fire, it marked a turning point in our evolution. It’s thought the ability to cook food and make use of the extra energy it provided led to an increase in brain size. When combined with the social aspects of gathering around fire to cook, it appears this may have triggered the breakaway of the human species from our more primitive ancestors.

Fire is believed to have been used systematically by humans for more than 125,000 years. It afforded humans the ability to live in colder climates, leading to a pattern of migration that would eventually cover the globe.

Indigenous Uses

There are a number of cultures around the world who use fire to modify the landscape and manage the land to make the most of valuable food resources. Native Americans use mosaic burning to keep the country open, manage wildlife and enhance the quality and quantity of plant material for cultural use. For many Indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest, fire is part of their livelihood and is sustainably used for rotational farming, hunting and stimulating certain trees to fruit.

Here in Australia, Indigenous people have systematically used fire to manage the land, create abundant food and maintain diverse ecosystems. This knowledge of what to burn and when was developed over many generations, with complex systems managed by all neighbouring clans in a unified way over the whole continent. The world’s oldest continuous culture used fire to thrive and it’s an impressive example of successful and sustainable land management.

The Europeans who settled Australia were mostly scared of fire, and for good reason. Fire would burn their fences, sheds, houses and themselves, and a pattern of a reduction in fire land management quickly emerged. This led to a landscape with more undergrowth, more bush and more high-intensity crown fires which did little more than reinforce that fear.

Aboriginal cultural burning, however, is a completely different type of fire. Low to the ground and slow moving, it allows time for animals and insects to escape, burning in patterns or mosaics to provide animal refuges. It’s fire that doesn’t damage trees or soil, instead makes space for a diversity of useful and medicinal plants to grow. They are suited to the time and place they are lit, and require an intimate knowledge of the country to be successful.

bushfire
Raging and unpredictable bushfires have changed our perception of fire

Current Uses

Like it or not, fire is ingrained in our modern lives. While burning coal gives electricity to most Australians, fire is also used for land clearing, hazard-reduction burning and management of green waste. In Australian agriculture, fire is used annually to burn crops such as sugar cane, which reduces plant residue to allow for a more efficient harvest. Fire is also used to remove weeds so the pasture can be re-sown with more useable plant species.

More traditional uses of fire include indoor and outdoor cooking, warming homes, making charcoal, blacksmithing and firing pottery. In some countries, burning meadows in summer promotes seed-bearing grasses, and in many forests and grasslands, plants have co-evolved with fire and require burning to reproduce. Slash-and-burn agriculture is common across Africa and Southeast Asia, and rice straw is traditionally burned after harvest. Smoke has many uses, too, including preserving food, smoking hides, beekeeping, traditional medicine and countless ritual and religious ceremonies around the world.

Smoke Pollution

The toxins released when burning wood contribute to respiratory and lung disease around the world. Some Australian cities such as Launceston and Canberra have smoke-pollution issues due to their topography and the way smoke can become trapped under a layer of air, called a temperature inversion. During winter, the use of wood heaters can be a major contributor to smoke pollution if they’re not used efficiently. Making sure we don’t contribute to smoke pollution is about knowing how to treat a fire; the more fire knowledge we have the better we will be able to control smoke pollution.

Lewis
Lewis Musgrave, eldest grandson of Dr George Musgrave, conducting traditional burning on Kuku-Thaypan country in Cape York

Embracing Fire

There are probably few humans without a fascination with fire; it’s almost impossible not to be mesmerised by it. A child’s fascination is instinctual, and in societies where fire is used for cooking and warmth, children are given responsibility over fire at a young age, resulting in their curiosity winding down by about age seven. If this curiosity isn’t satisfied, the fascination or fear can be retained throughout adult life and its appeal is evidenced by the number of fire festivals held around the world.

To embrace fire we should have a strong understanding of what is good fire and what is bad fire. Reconnecting with fire means knowing how to safely light one and control it. It means knowing what makes an efficient fire without too much smoke pollution, what the rules are around fire and when permits are needed.

There are many options for using fire in small ways at home to safely warm the home, cook food, entertain or in ceremony. From beeswax candles on the dinner table through to an outdoor firepit shared with friends, fire can bring connections. Using it to heat water and cook a meal is a skill we can teach our children.

Outdoor fires can be as simple as a tin-can rocket stove or an outdoor fire set in an old drum. Start small and build your skills and knowledge, then look at increasing your self-reliance with both outdoor and indoor wood-burning heaters, wetbacks and ovens.

Embracing fire may be as simply as becoming more conscious of what fire represents to us as humans, and how it is a useful tool for land management. Reconnecting with fire is not only about bringing connection and warmth back into our lives, it’s about reconnecting with nature and the land, and even with ourselves.

fire
Heat-giving and social, fire creates a meeting place for connections.

Live and learn

How Fire Touched My Life

We recently had an Indigenous crew apply a cool burn to a small section of the land we steward. It began with a smoking ceremony to ask the ancestors’ permission, before patches of fire were lit. It was cool, moved slowly and what amazed me the most was the fire’s light touch; we walked straight onto the burnt ground, scraped away the ash with a bare hand and took a handful of cool, moist soil.

Weeks later, as I crouched over fire trying to learn how to smoke bacon, I had time to reflect. After such a traumatic bushfire season, I realised both these experiences of directly handling fire removed my fear and gave me an understanding of this incredibly useful tool. We can make fire, we can control it and, when used correctly, it can give us a deeper connection to the world we inhabit.

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