Skip navigation

Cultural Burning: a primer

20230919_140802.jpgAs Australia experiences an early start to the 2023/24 fire season, much of the current media coverage understandably focuses on fighting fires. But there is a deeper, longer public conversation about how we manage the land. In this context, fuel reduction/ hazard reduction burning, ecological burning and Cultural burning are often considered as ways of reducing fire risk.

Often Cultural burning is conflated with fuel reduction burning, which is consistently rejected by traditional owners who are involved in Cultural burning. What is Cultural burning? In this background paper Madison Conway delves into what Cultural burning is in the Victorian context. This is written using publicly available documents and is written by a non indigenous person.

You can read this document as a pdf by checking here.

All images used here are from a Djandak Wi (Country Fire) burn, managed by Djaara custodians. Bendigo, September, 2023. Photos: Cam Walker.


What is Cultural Burning?

The Black Summer Bushfires of 2019/2020 sparked a large conversation across the continent about the necessary widespread reintroduction of Cultural Burning. The conversation was centred around the practice being used as an effective tool for bushfire hazard reduction. However, limiting the conversation to its contribution to bushfire hazard reduction has laid room for misinterpretations and assumptions. Cultural Burning is indeed an effective means of reducing the harm of bushfires, but it is so much more than that. An important first step in the process of reintroducing Cultural Burning is understanding what it is and the important role that it plays. The information included in this document was collected from various public sources to provide the public with the foundational understanding of Cultural Burning and its presence in the state of Victoria. A list of further reading and resources are included which are strongly recommended to access.


What It Means

The severity of harm that fire is capable of inflicting has been felt by much of the population of the country now known as Australia. However, throughout human history, people have utilised fire as a tool to support and maintain life, from cooking food and keeping warm, fire has held a significant presence in all our histories. Even now, fire continues its familiarity in bringing people together to share in memories under the stars. The extent to what fire can provide is seen especially through its usage within the practices of Indigenous Peoples across continents. Within Australia, Fire has been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples since time immemorial for a multitude of purposes. One such purpose is through the practice of Cultural Burning, a contemporary term for the process of Cultural Fire, and is defined by The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy as;

“Fire deliberately put into the landscape authorised and led by Traditional Owners of that Country, for a variety of purposes, including but not limited to: ceremony, protection of cultural and natural assets, fuel reduction, regeneration and management of food, fibre and medicines, flora regeneration, fauna habitat protection and healing Country’s spirit.”

As is expressed through its definition, Cultural Burning is a holistic practice with benefits that extend to environmental, social and cultural needs. The formation and facilitation of the practice is based upon deep knowledge that spans generations. It reflects the intrinsic knowledge that Traditional Owners have with the land and all it encompasses. Whilst broadly known as “the environment” within western framings, this is known as Country by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and is defined by the Traditional Owner Group as;

“Country is more than a place. The Indigenous relationship between people and Country is deep and intimate. From an Indigenous perspective, one belongs to Country and there is a reciprocal relationship that exists between people and Country. Country includes all of the sentient and non-sentient parts of the world and the interactions between them, according to Aboriginal lore. Indigenous lore and life originates in and is governed by Country. Country must be respected.”1

The reciprocal relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Country fosters responsibility to ensure the mutual health of Country and People. Within a western framing, humans provide care to the environment through the actions of “land management”, “conservation” and “environmental restoration.” However, this relationship is often one sided with humans placed in separation from the natural world. This differs fundamentally from Indigenous Knowledges wherein the care is holistic, expressed through the phrase, “If you look after the Country, the Country will look after you.” The outcome of this care is broader than western understandings of ‘wellbeing’, and is defined as;

“[Wellbeing is] a holistic understanding of health – physical, psychological, spiritual and cultural. It is more than the absence of disease or ill-health. Indigenous people emphasise that their wellbeing is in relation to kin and Country.”


More of what Cultural Burning encompasses is seen within these quotes from The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy:

Aboriginal [cultural] fire is caring for Country.

(Gunditj Mara elder, at a meeting of the Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Holder Group, February 2018.)

Cultural burns are used for cultural purposes - they are not simply about asset protection. Cultural burns protect sites and clear access through Country for cultural uses - hunting, access to fish traps, ceremony etc.

(Gunditj Mara elder, at a meeting of the Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Holder Group, February 2018.)

Our vision for fire and as a cultural indicator is to see multiple plumes of smoke in the landscape, this is what the newcomers to Country saw and recorded. Cultural fire is a tool for gardening the environment.

(Dja Dja Wurrung elder, at a meeting of the Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Holder Group, November 2017.)

Cultural burning is about what fire brings back, the herbs and the grasses and what we can utilise.

(Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Holder Group, 28 March 2018.)

There is only one fire and that is Right Fire, fire for your Country.

(Tagalaka man in discussion with Victorian Cultural Fire Knowledge Holders at the South East Aboriginal Fire Forum, 11 May 2018.)

I like the word cultural fire. This is part of Lore. It’s a cultural learning pathway. Healing Country and family. Fire is a tool to heal and bring back Right Way according to Lore. If you are doing the right thing (according to Right Way) you will get the right outcome.

(Bundjalung man in discussion with Victorian Fire Knowledge Holders, Cape Otway 2018.)

Cultural fire is practising my culture, more than just about burning.

(Wiradjuri man at the South East Aboriginal Fire Forum, 11 May 2018.)


The Undertaking

The decision to facilitate a Cultural Burn is in direct response to local factors which consider the climate, recent rainfall, plants and animals, wind conditions as well as previous burns, and only when the right conditions are present is it safe for Burning to take place,,,. The entire process follows strict protocols and is determined upon the result of extensive planning and consultation within community5,6,7,8. One such element within the planning process is the moment in time and season, known as the Right Time. This ensures that Cultural Burning never takes  place during the hot and dry seasons where bushfire risk is high.

The specific nature of Cultural Burning differs between Traditional Owner Groups but there are commonalities on its characteristics that are available to the public. Cultural Burning is described by its cooler temperature, low height and slow speed 6,. These elements reflect the care and precision of Cultural Burning as they ensure that the Fire does precisely what it intends to. The height is considered so that the flames only touch the forest floor and do not reach the branches of the trees. The slow speed maintains control of the fire whilst also allowing enough time for local animals and insects to scatter to safer territory. The cooler temperature then ensures that the soil, and the plants that grow from it, are not damaged or harmed permanently. 

The process is to facilitate growth and ensure that it does not get out of control. Another key element to Cultural Burning is that it is applied in a mosaic or patchwork pattern across Country7. This means that different areas are burnt over many years so that when a Burn is taking place there are unburnt places of refuge for the insects and animals to retreat to. It is also necessary so that in the aftermath of a Burn there is enough food, shelter and resources to go round whilst the freshly burnt areas grow back.


For Life

The benefits of Cultural Burning are continuous and are seen throughout the entire process. In its contribution to bushfire hazard reduction, Cultural Burning removes much of the flammable plant matter that contributes to bushfire risk in what is known as “the shrub layer” of the forest. This shrub layer can act as a connective pathway between the ground and the higher levels of the trees, known as the canopy12. If that link is not broken, the shrub layer can cause bushfires to turn catastrophic as it fuels the fire to reach greater heights12

Beyond the hazards that it reduces, Cultural Burning also facilitates the growth of plants. The plant matter that is burnt often inhibits the ability for some native species to come through. Additionally, much of Australia’s native plants are reliant upon fire for rejuvenation, and the low heat of Cultural Burning provides the right conditions for new shoots13.

The entire process of Cultural Burning, from before one happens through to the next, touches the health and wellbeing of People and Country. The continuation of the practice helps keep culture alive as the knowledges are shared across generations, connecting members of Community to each other and the ancestral lands. The connection that is within Cultural Burning contributes to the healing of People and Place. The practice holds complexity, something described by Mike Bourke in the following quote;

“People need to understand that cultural fire is not just about burning Country, lighting it to reduce fuels, reduce risk to houses, or things like that. We use fire to put colour back into the landscape, as well as make our ceremony, connect with each other, connect with our history, and that’s just the start.”13

The Difference

Separate from Cultural Burning, state governments have implemented strategies to use fire on the landscape in what is known as either ‘fire reduction burns’, ‘hazard reduction’, ‘controlled burning’ and ‘prescribed burning.’ However, these practices differ fundamentally in that they are used for the sole purpose of mitigating the impacts of bushfires to protect life and property. This practice is a western interpretation that was taken and adapted from First Nations Knowledges. The method involves large scale burns, known for their intensity, extreme heat, and height, that sweep across the landscape leaving very little remaining14. Whilst it has been the dominant approach, the inconsistent nature of the evidence behind the benefits of these burns have led to reasonable judgements being made of their ineffectiveness16. Areas that have undertaken ‘fuel reduction burns’ have often had negative effects on their intended outcomes with the environment, and plants and animals are often harmed in the process16.



View of Fire

Entwined within the narrative of fire within the western world, it has been depicted as something to be fearful of, something that is dangerous and life threatening. This view of fire causes limitations on its ability to be seen as a tool and something that contributes positively to life. The catastrophic fires that have impacted so many lives across the continent is a large contribution to the relationship many people have with fire, and rightly so. Many in the community experience and hold trauma as the result of the destructive impacts of wild fire on their personal lives, their family and their community.  It is often influenced by the mechanisms of fuel reduction burns, in which community members have witnessed the harm it inflicts to their local landscape. When uncontrolled, fire has the potential to cause fast and inescapable damage to the livelihoods of many. It will not be without challenges to shift the narrative of fire but it is valuable to do so. There are many resources available and opportunities to be involved in to understand the value of fire and of Cultural Burning. 


Copied from Afar

Many ecosystems across this continent were subject to the long removal of fire from the landscape. As the practice has only seen large scale reintroduction in the recent decades, it has led many to assume that the practice was copied and pasted from northern areas. However, it should be deeply considered that Cultural Burning has maintained a presence on private lands for much longer than it has been on public lands. Additionally, the decision to reintroduce fire to the landscape was done as the outcome of extensive research. There is no denying the landscape has changed fundamentally since colonisation but Cultural Burning has been reintroduced in response to those changes.



Western knowledge frameworks function in set categories, where different aspects of the environment are treated in separation from each other. The nature of Cultural Burns is entwined throughout sea, sky, fire, land, and people. Placing fire in isolation is culturally inappropriate whilst also negatively impacting on its ability to meet all its intended long-term outcomes. Many Traditional Owners have spoken on the limitations of Cultural Burning programs being allocated in short term cycles, usually between one and four years. This results in short term funding and reviews of their outcomes taking place at a time before the extent of what they’re able to achieve is able to be seen in full. Those reviews are often isolated to ecological outcomes which do not account for Cultural and social benefits. Contributing to this is speculation as to whether the practice can meet the outcomes that it seeks to. These assumptions produce a feedback loop where they enable each other, in order to break this linkage Cultural Burning must be understood as a long-term process that connects to other social and cultural benefits.


Cultural Burning in Victoria

Cultural Burning practices have a presence across much of the continent. Of the language groups that span across Victoria, many are seeing that Fire returns to Country. The practice itself was limited to private lands for many years but has been gradually reintroduced to public land since 2017. Since this reintroduction, there has been an increasing presence of Cultural Fire on Country. This is largely due to changes in legislation and the enactment of various programs and strategies, including:

  • Cultural Fire Grants
  • Recognition and Settlement Agreements 
  • Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy (2019)
  • Pupangarli Marnmarnepu 'Owning Our Future’ Aboriginal Self-Determination Reform Strategy 2020-2025. 

Additionally, many Traditional Owner Groups have published Whole of Country Plans. These documents outline the intentions and aspirations for People and Place. Embedded in these aspirations is the intention to increase capacity to facilitate and reintroduce Cultural Burns widely. Each Traditional Owner Group across the state are at varying stages in the journey of Cultural Burning, an outline of each at the time of writing is included below.

Dja Dja Wurrung

Djaara were the first to facilitate a Cultural Burn on Victorian public land in over a hundred years and have since continued the practice in many areas. Of the many achievements, Djaara have had input in both state and regional fire policy, obtained a role within fire governance and have implemented Djandak Wi: Returning Cultural Fire to Country. 


Gunaikurnai have seen the reintroduction of Cultural Burns on public lands since 2020. Gunaikurnai released the Gunaikurnai Land And Waters Aboriginal Corporation Cultural Fire Strategy, which set out strong ambitions and targets to ensure the widespread reintroduction of Cultural Burns on Country.


Guditjmara People have implemented Cultural Burns on a multitude of sites on both private and public lands. Two major bodies manage the lands of Gunditjmara Country, those being  the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Group as well as Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation, which includes the Budj Bim Rangers. Gunditj Mirring have facilitated burns on public lands, with both groups also undertaking burns on private lands as well as on the Budj Bim and Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Areas.


Eastern Maar have facilitated Cultural Burns on public lands, this year delivering a Burn on Dreeite (Nature Reserve). Eastern Maar have outlined targets to implement Cultural Burns across Traditional Lands to ensure that when fire takes place on Country it is ecologically and culturally safe.


Taungurung have outlined in the Taungurung Whole of Country Plan strong targets and ambitions to build capacity to implement Cultural Burns as well as strengthen presence and employment of Taungurung within land management and fire regimes.


Wadawurrung have been leading the reintroduction of Cultural Burning since 2019 through the Victorian Volcanic Plains recovery project. Since then, Wadawurrung Traditional Owners have led Cultural Burns on Country at various sites including, Western Treatment Plant, Lake Borrie and Dog Rocks Teesdale. Wadawurrung have plans to develop a Caring for Country team so Wadawurrung people may be contracted to lead cultural burning and fire management. Wadawurrung plan to ensure that 50% of burns are led by Wadawurrung Traditional Owners.

The Wotjobaluk Nations: Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia And Jupagulk Peoples (Barengi Gadjin)

Barengi Gadjin Land Council represents the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia And Jupagulk Peoples of the Wotjobaluk Nations. Barengi Gadjin has led burns at multiple public sites across the lands. The Barengi Gadjin Whole of Country plan outlines ensuring Cultural Burns as a common practice in land management.

Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung

The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation is putting together a Whole of Country Plan that will outline aspirations for Country and People. Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung led a cultural Burn on the Correnderk Site in 2020. The Narrap Team of Wurundjeri Traditional Owner Corporation, undertake Cultural Burns upon the request of clients as well as the management of the properties owned by Wurundjeri Council.

Yorta Yorta

Yorta Yorta have recently led a Cultural Burn on public lands with an extensive presence on private lands. Yorta Yorta Whole of Country Plan outlines ambitions to ensure the reintroduction of Cultural Burns on Yorta Yorta traditional lands.  


Over the past decade there have been a multitude of achievements in bringing Fire back to Country, however there are still many barriers currently being faced. One of the most significant is current legislative and regulatory requirements, which enforce western centric approaches to Fire and limit access to land. This impacts the capacity for Traditional Owners to take on leadership roles as, under law, Fire must follow strict guidelines when being undertaken on public lands. Some of these restrictions include specific training and qualifications which may inhibit young people and Elders in their capacity to undertake Burns.

Additionally, funding is another barrier as there is a significant lack of resources and finances that prioritise Cultural Burning within the public sector28. As mentioned previously, many projects exist within short funding cycles that do not provide longevity and reliability in the long term28. This barrier is fueled by the previous mentioning of the general negative perception of fire28. It has been normalised within western society to view fire as something to be fearful of, something that is inherently dangerous. But Fire can be something that contributes to life, it provides a place to sit around and share memories under the stars with loved ones; it cooks our food and adds to the nutrients in our bellies; it provides warmth on cold days; it brings life back to the landscape.


External Conversations

The conversation that has been held regarding Cultural Burning Practices has brought together many stakeholders and groups. Looking after Country and the environment will involve the common interest and care of Traditional Owners, government departments, National Parks management teams, community-based volunteer organisations, environmental protection agencies, farmers and agricultural workers, conservationists, land care groups, local community members and general nature lovers. With many people in the mix, coming from a diversity of places and positions, there are still some who need to be convinced about the value of Cultural Fire being reintroduced to the landscape. Our experience is that, as people learn more about the practises and intent of Cultural Burning, more people become supportive of it. Due to colonisation, Cultural Fire has been removed from the landscape in the south east of the continent for many years and the ecology has changed dramatically since then. Given the changes over the past two centuries, some argue that Cultural Fire is no longer suitable for the landscape with other methids being available that may accomplish what Fire could.

Some of these methods include:

  •   Peatland restoration
  •   Fire breaks
  •   Selective planting
  •   Manual removal of dead wood
  •   Thinning

These methods do offer reasonable solutions, however their intentions differ greatly to Cultural Burning. As mentioned above, the practice is more than bushfire hazard reduction or land care, it is a holistic practice that contributes to the health and wellbeing of Country and of People. It provides a place to connect with culture and community. Moving forward now, in addition to the outline stated earlier within this text, engaging deeper in the practice is of vital importance. There is a wealth of resources available that provide imagery and narrative to the practice, that show how it differs from hazard reduction burning and how effective it is in bringing life to the landscape. There is a responsibility in supporting the reintroduction of Cultural Fire and it begins in a shift in how Fire is viewed.


Further Engagement


Strategies and Whole of Country Plans

The Victorian Traditional Owner: Cultural Fire Strategy

The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Group

Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Landscapes Strategy

Pupangarli Marnmarnepu 'Owning Our Future’

Aboriginal Self-Determination Reform Strategy 2020-2025

Dhelkunya Dja: Dja Dja Wurrung Country Plan

Eastern Maar

Gunaikurnai Whole of Country Plan

Gunaikurnai Land And Waters Aboriginal Corporation

Cultural Fire Strategy

Managing Country Using Fire

Taungurung buk dadbagi
Taungurung Country Plan

Paleert Tjaard Dja

Let’s make Country good together 2020 – 2030

Wadawurrung Country Plan

Growing What Is Good Country Plan

Voices Of The Wotjobaluk Nations

Yorta Yorta Whole-Of-Country Plan 2021 – 2030


Documents and Articles

Cultural Burning in Southern Australia

Changing Fire Imaginaries By Sally Gardner, Danielle Couch, Mick Bourke, Amos Atkinson And Paul Komesaroff

How Self-Determination is Returning White Smoke to Country By Scott Falconer

Putting Country back together: a conversation about collaboration and Aboriginal fire management by Mick Bourke, Amos Atkinson & Timothy Neale

Walking together: a decolonising experiment in bushfire management on Dja Dja Wurrung country by Timothy Neale, Rodney Carter, Trent Nelson, Mick Bourke

 Cultural Burning Learning Hub



Fire Country
How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia By Victor Steffensen

Looking After Country with Fire 

Aboriginal Burning Knowledge With Uncle Kuu By Victor Steffensen, Sandra Steffensen (Illustrator)


Aboriginal cultural burning returns to regional Victoria | The Point | NITV

The First Inventors

Design To Survive (Episode 1)

How Indigenous fire management practices could protect bushland | Australian Story 

Djandak Wi - Traditional Burning Returns



Continue Reading

Read More