Indigenous fire and land management: impact and sustainability - Black Summer final report | Natural Hazards Research Australia

Indigenous fire and land management: impact and sustainability - Black Summer final report

The development of a Future Research Strategy around opportunities and challenges for sustainable partnerships in emergency management

Research theme

Learning from disasters

Publication type


Published date


Author Glenn James , Danny Burton , Otto Campion , Barry Hunter , Jimmy Morrison , Ted Gondarra , James Bayung


Significant work has been done over the life of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre around the issues, opportunities and challenges facing remote Indigenous communities in the face of natural hazards. In the north of Australia, the predominant natural threats are cyclones, wildfire and flood, though the level of threat and impact of any of these differs considerably from region to region. There are other hazards that deeply concern remote community leaders, again, not equally across regions: heat stress and exposure, natural water resource salination and pollution, food security, toxicity and asthma issues from crude community waste burning, infrastructure issues (including road access); and related challenges; local capability to act, governance, resilience, inclusion etc.

The emergency management sector research has focused on technologies, capability, recruitment, and other aspects of EM agency preparation, response and recovery. This project responds to an identified gap in addressing the overall environment of Emergency management in remote areas. . . working together!

It is broadly recognised within Indigenous communities that EM is carried out FOR them, not WITH them. (See detailed discussion of this in the Arnhem Land context in Maypalama et. al.: 2016 and Sithole et. al.: 2021). This has generated increased interest, not only in the future engagement of communities in EM, but in the roles, if any, of EM and other agencies in the resilience of communities who, given structural and resource limitations in EM, are keen (and encouraged) to increase ‘self-reliance’ and take on more responsibilities in this space.

There is now a growing conversation nationally around government agencies and Indigenous communities collaborating more effectively. Much of this conversation has been around the perceived positive impact of traditional knowledge (particularly use of fire) on landscape health, and vulnerability to wildfire, how this may be integrated into rural fire service practice and what the real impact of this might be.

Indigenous leaders and rangers have consistently said and shown that use of fire is not separate from other (holistic) elements of caring for traditional country and that the social and cultural dimensions to land and fire management need to be acknowledged and respected to deliver the desired benefits to country and people (Sithole et. al. 2021: Maypalama 2019: James et. al. 2019: Burgess et. al. 2009). There are many aspects to this conversation and many perceived potential benefits of working together. They underpin this project’s focus on partnerships to be able to explore this work together. Thus, the research brief is to:

  • develop a future research strategy
  • develop a strategic partnership framework
  • explore research priorities.


This research was conducted as a series of community-based discussions and workshops in the Northern Territory and north Queensland. NAILSMA provided resources, logistics, backgrounding and other support to local Indigenous researchers and facilitators who ran the meetings on country. This was a Participatory Action Research (PAR) method, consistent with preceding research on community resilience and partnerships by ARPNet and NAILSMA under the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC project Developing effective partnerships in remote north Australian communities: Indigenous research and leadership in Ramingining and Galiwin’ku. Inherent in this approach are direct benefits to Indigenous researchers and their communities from the process and from longer term outcomes influenced by their research and advocacy with EM agency leaders.

 Where possible, meeting notes from the NT and Qld discussions were drafted and circulated to respondents and all invitees to the final combined workshop. This was to share what had already been discussed and to help provide focus.

An Agency Reference Group (ARG) (made up predominantly of representatives from QFES, NTES and DFES, but including CDU, Red Cross, NAILSMA and BFNT people) was invited to review and respond to early workshop outcomes, and attend the final workshop. This step was to inform the ARG and Indigenous community invitees to the final workshop with a general view of both Indigenous and agency perspectives on EM priorities and partnership prospects. They were able to kick-off their face-to-face discussions with a degree of prior understanding and focus.

This final, combined workshop was hosted by Djabugay people on their land, facilitated by Barry Hunter, a Djabugay leader and consultant and supported by NAILSMA.


To inform a Future Research Strategy the research team has organised ideas from the workshop and broader project into:

  • Gaps – unmet issues, knowledge and challenges with business-as-usual
  • Research Priorities – investigation, understanding and pathways for action.
  • Partnerships – substance, development, focus and monitoring.

The work found that gaps are evident within communities, within EM agencies and between them. Summary of the findings includes:

  • General lack of basic engagement by agencies – for example, not knowing who to talk to and how to start doing things differently.
  • Limitations of local capability – governance, dedicated equipment and infrastructure, knowledge of EM systems and agency operations, restrictive laws etc.
  • Very little knowledge of social capital and other assets available in communities – local knowledge, equipment skills, communications, cross-cultural training, new generation recruitment, networks of obligation and care, nuanced knowledge of country and its seasons, use of fire.
  • Naivety from agencies about Indigenous culture and knowledge systems.
  • Lack of understanding about the costs and benefits of adopting new support and partnership models, tailored to regionally unique needs.
  • Lack of understanding of the impact across government agencies, particularly the lack of coordination of their functions, engagement and policy settings – often even within agencies.
  • Lack of clarity about resilience building at community level.
  • Poor recognition or knowledge of the impacts of climate change on different areas, and in relation to future planning
  • How land tenure effects Indigenous fire and land management activities
  • Performance criteria and stewardship of agency/community collaborations (cultural and EMA criteria) are undeveloped.

Research Priorities mirror the above gaps and challenges, leading to achieving practical steps in long-term relationship pathways:

  • Detailed modelling of different approaches to sustainable involvement of Indigenous leaders and land management groups in EM partnership roles
  • Cost benefit analysis of the different partner models to inform policy, operational change and short- and long-term Government EM budget planning.
  • Reviewing laws and regulations to align with agreed partner roles, responsibilities and performance – e.g., State fire bans, fire lighting fines.
  • Understanding the parameters of formal roles and responsibilities, decision making capabilities, cultural prohibitions/sensitivities, access rights etc. on different land tenure types (e.g., Aboriginal Freehold, Native Title, National Parks, Pastoral leases, town areas)
  • Developing communication and EM management tools for local communities, including tools for Indigenous partners to guide agency partners in cross-cultural modus-operandi.
  • Developing the ‘two toolbox’ approach to maximise the effectiveness of working together, including monitoring criteria.
  • Investigate opportunities and challenges of State and Territory EM agencies collaborating with each other to support the partnership approach with Indigenous communities across the north. 
  • Streamline engagement and partnership approaches for agencies in relation to common features across communities and identify approaches to accommodate unique circumstances.

Integrating Indigenous fire and land management knowledge with EM operations and systems is not about taking the knowledge, it’s about building respectful and trusting relationships with Indigenous people to deliver more effective EM together.


This research method (Participatory Action Research) assumes that the Indigenous researchers and their communities are a focal end-user. Participating EM agencies are another key end-user, not only by benefiting from the research in the long run but through face-to-face interactions with community researchers through which opportunities and challenges in developing direct relationships with participating communities can be discussed and solutions progressed firsthand.

In this sense the research is being used as it develops, to benefit communities, relationship building and short-term achievable change. It is also aimed at the national agenda for partnerships with Indigenous land managers, seeking to inform the new Natural Hazards Research Australia[1] about future research priorities and to encourage more discussion, more experience sharing and broader engagement of Indigenous leaders and influential EM agency staff in collaborative workshops hosted by Communities in different jurisdictions on country. This latter aim reflects the success of this project’s collaborations and use of this model as an ongoing forum to benefit the sector. See for example the Aims and Expectations of the final project workshop below.

 The summary of next steps:

  1. Relevant EM agencies and community leaders to start or continue working on their relationship and achievable change now.
  2. This report, supported by participating agencies, is presented to the new Natural Hazards Research Australia as a foundation to attract a future fully funded program of collaborative PAR with community researchers and of partnered EM activity.
  3. For the next and future collaborative workshops to be planned and funding secured so they may become annual, focused, Indigenous led pillars of EM sector partnerships.
  4. Conversations continue at 3 levels: community level, transregional and across the multi-agency national conversation. This should include Qld, NT and WA EM agencies connecting more effectively with each other and supporting each other to progress partnership building at North Australia scale.
  5. Indigenous communities and land management groups, their representative organisations and supporters take whatever steps they are able to, to build resilience and capability in EM.
Year of Publication
Date Published
Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC
Report Number
Locators Google Scholar

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