The fire cult

Long ago, in a region people now call Western Victoria, fire belonged to the crows. They played with it on Gariwerd, a mountain range known today as the Grampians. A firetail finch watched the crows clowning around with firesticks, and when one fell to the ground, the finch picked it up and hightailed it. When the crows put up a chase, the finch passed the firestick to Tarakuulk, the kestrel, who took off above the volcanic plains. As Tarakuulk soared, embers scattered and illuminated the landscape, and that is how the Gunditjmara – the traditional owners of the region – were given fire.

This is roughly how Gunditjmara language specialist Joel Wright tells his mob’s creation story. He says it speaks against some whitefella myths, or what he calls ‘contemporary constructions by non-Aboriginal people’. These myths are now being invoked by warring academics, bureaucrats, lobbyists and foresters.

In a region where the Wurundjeri, Boon­wurrung and Wathaurong people have lived and tended to country — people now call it Melbourne — Wright spent decades amassing databases of words spoken before European invasion. As coordinator of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, Wright says that language is where ‘Aboriginal knowledge lives.’

When he trawled through his vast reservoir of language, he found ‘a very different picture to contemporary bush-burning theories.’ In his region, ‘nowhere are there any words for intentionally lighting forests.’

The closest word to ‘bushfire’ is muttwich, but that refers to fires made by lightning strikes or volcanoes. He knows words for smoke signals and words describing the burning of grass to entrap birds. But to Wright, claims that First Australians intentionally incinerated large tracts of land ‘seem pretty implausible’. In some localities, the ‘absence of words to describe burning bush casts a large question mark’ around whitefella claims about blackfella land management.

European settlers noticed ways First Australians used fire to cover tracks, to shape the landscape for hunting, and to foil settlers. These practices continue to be mistaken for (or reduced to) ‘fuel reduction’ and ‘resource management’ – terms fitting a market-economy schema.

Lobby groups, not just government agencies, understand Indigenous burning practices in these ways. Graeme Stoney, president of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria, says graziers have been ‘copying … indigenous burning practices’ since settlement. Around Australia, these ostensible ‘Indigenous burning practices’ are officially called ‘firestick farming’, a term (or hypothesis) coined in 1969 by the celebrated archaeologist Rhys Jones.

But for decades, palaeontologists have been trying to hose down myths around firestick farming. UNSW Associate Professor Scott Mooney, who led a 2010 study of charcoal records across Australia dating back 70,000 years, told the ABC: ‘The firesticks are definitely in the colonisers’ hands, not the original inhabitants.’ Whitefellas, he explained, have ‘imagined the past’.

Even as debate mounts, scholars generally accept that small-scale burns have been taking place across the continent for millennia. If you visit Australia’s central deserts, you’ll find stories lit with waru (fire), illuminating the vestiges of past inhabitants and the habits of present ones. Over the south-west corner of Western Australia, you’ll find kaarla (fire) inscribed like a fossil record into kaartdijin (culture). There’s a constellation of ancient firestick stories across Australia, each attending an order of knowledge.

So now, southern state agencies are sending rangers to Cape York via a vast bureaucracy called the Wet Tropics Management Authority, to train in firestick traditions. These ‘healing country’ rituals ignite gentler, cooler, slower, more localised burns than the large-scale prescribed incinerations that have scorched Australia’s forests since colonisation. Firestick methods allow animals time to relocate, and they don’t sear the microbial life out of the soil. They connect with ancestors. Once trained, firestick practitioners will be deployed to southern forests.

And yet, if you chat with elders and read scholarly accounts, you’ll learn about these methods’ specificities – to place, to law, to knowledge, to cosmology. For millennia, firestick practices have been performed by people with appropriate custodial relationships to the land. Cut-and-pasted from one landscape to another, reduced to a set of procedures, they become severed from their numinous context – and the numinous is inseparable from the practical.

Wright reckons ‘the mob would have taken you right out’ had you lit fires in his district, where winds are fierce and mercurial, ‘making controlled burns of large areas totally impossible.’ Firestick burns are smaller scale, but time and again official burns in wrong conditions have escaped demarcated zones and devastated wildlife and farms, each time generating official inquiries. The lesson is often the same: fires ignore lines on maps.

Wright hopes teen wurrung weeyn-ngat (the language of fire) might be a corrective to foundational ideas that shaped generations of forestry practice. Some Australian forest species have adapted to fire; some bush and agro-pastoral burns are effective. But ecologists (often conflated with foresters – the latter being managerial) are debunking the myth that planned burning is a generalisable bushfire deterrent. They say official practice is rooted more in colonial ideology than in historical or scientific evidence. ‘Science versus resources’ is how independent Victorian ecologist Marianne Worley describes the difference between ecology and old-school forestry approaches.

ANU professor David Lindenmayer’s studies show that planned burns frequently increase risk of bushfire. In one lecture, Lindenmayer projected a map of prescribed burns of highland forest and mountain ash, and then overlaid it with a map of subsequent bushfire trajectories. The two were chillingly commensurate. His studies are confirmed by others showing that the highest bushfire severity is occurring in young regrowth forests after planned burns.

In May 2018, Sydney endured toxic levels of particulate pollution as the forests on Mt Solitary exploded with smoke columns. This wasn’t the first time planned burns have had serious adverse impacts. A 2016 report in the Medical Journal of Australia found up to fourteen premature deaths and 100 hospital admissions in Sydney that year were due to smoke from planned burns. The autumn smoke that often blankets the southern states is officially explained as ‘bushfire hazard reduction’, but satellite images reveal this as myth-making. Much originates from the intensive burning of debris left behind after clear-fell logging. In other words, the smoke is industrial pollution, not the unavoidable consequence of burns intended (ostensibly) to protect life and property.
Last year, Melbourne’s east suffered evacuation-level toxic air readings, mostly due to these incinerations.

As Australia’s forests recede, native timber industries and forestry bureaucracies (in most states, the two are inseparable) are promoting firestick farming for ‘better’ forest management. Before the state election, the Victorian Liberal Nationals promised $29 million for ‘traditional fire management practices’ – a tactic, some conservationists believe, to buy social license for the planned burns industry.

It’s tempting to dismiss this revision of firestick farming as simply whitefella myth-making, but doing so ignores blackfellas’ knowledge, agency and hard-won foothold of authority in the official sphere. Doing so also conflates ‘traditional’ – that is, whitefellas’ fantasies about pre-colonial times – with ‘authentic’. Firestick farming is a term now used by many Aboriginal groups, and its revival is partly driven by Aboriginal councils and rangers who have formidable knowledge of the land. People aligned with the Wurundjeri Tribe Council say state investment in firestick farming allows people to reconnect with country (inseparable from ancestors) and reclaim their rightful authority. In a promotional video, Trent Nelson, a Djadjawurung ranger at Parks Victoria, says that djandak wi (traditional burning) is ‘healing people and country together’.

Other elders say these councils and agencies don’t represent Indigenous authority. These are insider-quarrels, but it’s important to debunk a persistent and racist myth that holds that Indigenous culture – remote, rural and urban; contemporary and past – is an undifferentiated mass, unified and agreed, without internal dissent, and not, like whitefellas, a conundrum of people and minds.



Some months ago, while I was researching prescribed burns for a Saturday Paper news feature, a forestry academic spoke with me on the condition of anonymity. He described what he calls ‘the fire cult’: a group of self-interested bureaucrats, foresters and academics hell-bent on maintaining current forestry practices. The latter’s research, funded by government, contradicts ecologists’ findings and aligns with logging industry interests. It seemed too wild a conspiracy theory.

Alleged cultists include old-school foresters – people who in good faith believe in the doctrine of prescribed burns and in the slash-and-burn harvesting of native forests. Two decades ago, our state forests became exempt from federal environment laws, allowing old-growth mountain ash to be logged for woodchips (in Victoria, mostly to supply Japanese-owned Nippon Paper Industries, manufacturer of Reflex). Some foresters believe in incinerating harvested logging coupes, a process they understand as ‘regenerative’, based on the same evidence that ecologists use to dismiss the claim. Prima facie, each claim and counter-claim seems plausible – the devil is in the detail.

Some figures in this alleged cult align with a secret-society-style outfit known as the International Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo. Hoo-Hoo has been described by Canadian journalist Cory Doctorow as a historically ‘racist, sexist club for men associated in some way with the lumber industry.’ My father, Geoff Wilson, an agribusiness journalist who founded Australian Forest Grower in the 1970s, was invited to Hoo-Hoo dinners in Melbourne and Brisbane. He said they were attended by public servants and timbermen and that, all in all, they were relatively tame affairs – just some informal networking. They were, he said, ‘all in good humour’. He witnessed nothing overtly racist. Hoo-Hoo may have been a little weird, he said, with its rituals and robes, but no weirder than the Freemasons.

The forestry academic who wants to remain anonymous told me he was invited to a Hoo-Hoo dinner by a timber mill manager back in 2005. He figured Hoo-Hoo must be part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, so he wondered why the dinner was held in a golf club in Box Hill. At the dinner, a game called Who? Who? was played. A forehead appeared on a screen, and diners were told it belonged to ‘a friend of the timber industry’. People had stabs at guessing the person’s identity as the face was revealed incrementally. Was it John Howard? No. Finally, the face of former forestry minister Wilson Tuckey was exposed. ‘Iron Bar’ Tuckey, who blamed ‘greenies’ for causing Australia’s bushfires, earned his nickname by beating up an Aboriginal man with a steel rod. All in good humour. (Tuckey also posed with a didgeridoo to symbolise beating up Labor, while his minders said to journalists: ‘Get it? Get it? Ironbark Tuckey!’)

Bigotry and violence are normalised in the most routine official rituals and records. They’re evident in a constantly reconfiguring Victorian bureaucracy called the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. DELWP employs some fine foresters and fire managers (my friends and relatives among them), but some of its agencies host a culture of fire-porn. Some staff deploy incendiaries from helicopters onto highland logging coupes and photograph their exploding plumes from afar, comparing the size of their smoke columns on Facebook. I’ve collected screen grabs of these – a catalogue of money shots. ‘Look at mine,’ boasts one; ‘I’ll raise you mine,’ another replies; ‘Look, you can see my column all the way from Melbourne!’ All in good humour. Jill Redwood, a Gippsland-based firefighter and forest campaigner, calls these men ‘pyrowankers’. (She describes the well-documented arsonists employed by firefighting agencies as ‘pyrocowboys’.) During my research, I was trolled by two pyrowankers.

Their impact on the ground reveals a bigotry inscribed into state forests and their official codification. The bombed coupes incinerate for weeks, even in the autumn rain. Scorched remains are black and mute as graveyard statutory, but worse than dead. There’s a dignity and reverence in death, a rightness in the cycle of organic decay, but these charred coupes are debased. They’re sites of dispossession and severance, of whitefella’s erasure of landscape and culture, of the pitiless razing of ancient life force, from majestic trees and ancient mosses to fragile animals and soil microbes.

What, then, would language specialists like Wright make of official names assigned to these coupes? Lucifer. Wicked. Satan. Warhead. Commando. Bone Crusher. Cask Wine. Ducks Guts [sic]. Party Nuts. Troll. Dirty Days. Party Thrills. Get Lucky. Teen Spirit. Black Mohawk. Gun Slinger. Dagger. Slingshot. Catapult. Bullet Proof. Tinny. Mixed Crystal. Junker. Crack. Big Fella. Whopper. Muffin. Poke. Browny. Blowhard. Bucking. Harpie. Cougar. Crook. Guitar Solo. Man City. VicForests, the state-owned logging company, assigns these names. All in good humour.

How do these words speak to First Nations people who, as anthropologist Marcia Langton put it, ‘write themselves on the land and the land in themselves’? What do these words tell people whose ontologies involve a breadth of ancestral time and space that whitefellas can only guess at, and whose creation stories understand fire as a gift to the land?

Creation stories of our Pyrocene – whence the past is combusted and the future carbonised – are hidden in plain sight. Successive bushfire inquiries feature the same cast of expert witnesses, among them retired forestry academic Peter Attiwill. Attiwill studied botany in the 1950s and dismisses as ‘nonsense’ the findings of government scientific committees who say native forests are overharvested and overburnt, and who urge transition into sustainable timber plantations. I’ve interviewed Attiwill twice, and both times I’ve found him to be good mannered and well spoken. His former colleagues remember him respectfully: one, forester-turned-campaigner Nick Legge, described his teaching as ‘precise, clear, thorough and patient.’ He’s frequently listed in Hansard and government documents as ‘professor’, but he never was one, according to the chancellor’s office at the University of Melbourne. When I asked him about this, he said it was an honorary title. (The chancellor’s office told me he was given an ‘honorary associate’ title upon retirement, but that expired in 2013.) He has published with the Institute of Public Affairs – which famously set up the Australian Environmental Foundation, an industry front group – and has been cast as the ‘leading’ expert in fire, ecology and forestry by industry groups like VicForests, the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association, the Rivers and Red Gum Environment Alliance (which opposes national parks) and the Stretton Group (which promotes prescribed burning). Three universities – University of Wollongong, Australian National University, and University of Melbourne – wrote to the Victorian government last year, urging it to stop relying on Attiwill’s claims.

If you follow this select cast of bushfire-inquiry figures, you’ll enter other revolving doors between timber industries and state fire-management agencies. Darrin McKenzie, for example, was a timber supply manager and Vice President of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries. He then became Deputy Chief Fire Officer at DELWP.

And other conspiracy stories are hidden in plain sight. In a 2003 bushfire inquiry, Charles Slade, senior reporter for Channel 9 News, testified that his crew flew to Bairnsdale, in Victoria’s south-east, to film what the then-named Department of Sustainability and Environment claimed was ‘a fairly serious and dangerous fire’. On arrival they could find only tame back-burns. What the DSE would claim to be ‘the biggest bushfire in 100 years’ bore no resemblance to what they witnessed. ‘So I rang local police and CFA [Country Fire Authority] unions who said, “No, everything is pretty calm”.’

The next morning another ‘alarmist press release’ was circulated, but again the scene didn’t accord with official claims. After much run-around, Slade cornered a government ‘spin doctor’ who admitted there was a ‘political battle going on between DSE, Parks Victoria and the CFA about bushfire management.’ According to Slade, as the fake news escalated in Australian media, the government had no choice but to continue the ruse:

They had to maintain, for several weeks, this level of fear and alarm and a sense of imminent danger … communities were encouraged to be alert and alarmed … it caused a lot of people a great deal of distress.

Allegedly, the bushfire was ‘staged’, with officials ‘dressing it up as a bushfire crisis and a heroic effort to save townships’. When animals and environment were burnt to death and local residents traumatised, Slade became so ‘distressed’ and ‘shocked’ that he wrote a three-page letter of resignation. Other witnesses supported Slade’s allegations; one firefighter accused the DSE of ‘doing everything possible to create problems for the rural people who were trying to manage this fire’; another local witness alleged: ‘The DSE guys were letting [the fire] go’. There’s too much alleged state arson in Hansard testimonies to detail here, but Slade’s experience of official obfuscation was simpatico with my own. The morning I read Slade’s account, I decided to contact him, but an online search revealed the details of his funeral that very day.

Instead, I sent Slade’s account to Timothy Neale, a Deakin University anthropologist who researches fire-fighting bureaucracies. His response: ‘I find some of the elements of this grand conspiracy narrative incredible.’ Still, to Neale, the promotion of ‘a certain narrative about the fire’ was ‘quite credible because this is what government agencies in search of support often do.’

Who knows? There are any number of explanations (one former DSE fire manager told me: ‘Of course bushfires are media-staged. You don’t want Stacey from Channel 7 in her high heels doing a piece-to-camera at the fire front.’) But the cult conspiracy has many believers among firefighters. Some are unwilling to whistleblow. Given the punitive culture in the public service, whistleblowers might seem heroic, but people maintain Facebook pages devoted to trolling them. As I write, a Facebook post proposes gaffer-taping dissenters to trees and burning them as a ‘tribute’ to Lindenmayer. One commenter wishes this tribute were instead ‘an obituary’. The Facebook page, @NoGreens, has more than 38,000 followers.

Lindenmayer, a distinguished professor with an inventory of honours including an Order of Australia, told me stories about decades of threats from forestry workers. ‘People are afraid of change,’ he said. He feels compassion for them, and understands that transitions out of debunked practices and redundant jobs ‘need to be made in a socially just way.’

Prescribed burning as a generalised strategy doesn’t have majority scientific support, but it has widespread political support, bolstered by old-school foresters, lobby groups, timber industry workers and bureaucratic myth-makers. Perhaps to them, dissenting ecologists signal a decline of empire, a loosening of a colonial grip. But so do the arcane traditions they’re now enlisting.

Official revision of firestick farming could work as a silencing tactic against conservationists who fear denouncing Indigenous knowledge. (The Facebook page claims conservationists are ‘not helping Aboriginals by pushing to “lock up” huge tracts of bush.’) But many welcome firestick revival as a way for foresters to invest their practices with a living history and, finally, to heed Indigenous knowledge. CSIRO ecologist Rosemary Hill, who studied Kuku-Yalanji traditions in Far North Queensland, believes customary law is frequently wiser than statutory law, and firestick practice is ‘extraordinarily fine-scale management … highly consistent with protection of biodiversity.’ For Victorian ecologist Marianne Worley, the weight of scientific evidence supports ‘right practice in right country’, as firestick wisdom has held for millennia.

For Djadjawurung ranger Trent Nelson, whose tradition was in hiatus for 170 years: ‘We are picking up that flame, that light-up from our ancestors, where they dropped it, and we are continuing that flame on.’ Through these ‘healing’ burns, says Djadjawurung elder Aunty Fay Carter, ‘We can feel our ancestor’s spirits … we have made them happy, and at peace.’

For many Australians, firestick burns might be a form of atonement. Time and again, anthropologists have noticed that even the most fractured Indigenous knowledge can function as colonisers’ conscience, as a corrective to their own spiritual disease.






Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson is author of Tinkering (Monash University Publishing) and a former editor of Overland.

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