Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995

Burn grass

April Bright
Mak Mak Marranunggu

Hello to everybody. My name is Yinirrakun, better known as April Bright. We have a few of the members of our family here that have come along to this Symposium out of interest as well as support for me. I'd like to say thank you to Debbie for inviting us to be able to participate in this Symposium. I hope you can understand me – I'm a bit nervous.

I am representing my people, the Mak Mak Marranunggu from Kurrindju. Mak Mak is our name for the white breasted sea eagle and Kurrindju is our traditional country. Shown on the map, our country is bordered by the Finniss River, Reynolds River, northern Litchfield Park and the western part of the Wagait Aboriginal Reserve.

I'd like to present to you one of the many important issues of fire to our people. My talk to you will be on 'burn grass'. This is what we call the procedure of burning off our country. We call it, simply, 'burn grass' or 'burn grass time'. This is the time we burn our country. It is part of our responsibility in looking after our country. If you don't look after country, country won't look after you.

'Burn grass' is as ancient as time itself. The burning of country was handed down to our people from the Dreamtime. To our people the Dreamtime is the time of creation.

I won't go into the Dreamtime story in depth, but very briefly. The chickenhawk – a-titit – took a firestick from a fire that was lit for a big ceremony and flew across Kurrindju, and as he flew across the country he burnt it. His flight path gave us significant areas and his actions began the handing down of one of our responsibilities – burning country.

'Burn grass' takes place after the wet season when the grass starts drying off. This takes place every year. The country tells you when and where to burn. To carry out this task you must know your country. You wouldn't, you just would not attempt to burn someone else's country. One of the reasons for burning is saving country. If we don't burn our country every year, we are not looking after our country. Right across our country we have very dense grasses, even in the ranges and timbered areas. If our country wasn't burnt, then speargrass, anything up to ten feet high, other dense grasses, leaves and fallen branches would form a thick underlying mat of mulch, even in as little as three to five years. If a fire was lit either purposely or through natural causes, especially through the height of the dry season, it would do untold damage to the flora and fauna. The ecosystem would suffer. The country would be burnt to a crisp.

After our 'burn grass' the country comes alive. It's rejuvenated. New, fresh grasses grow. New foliage takes place. This will take place in one to three weeks in wetter areas and four to six weeks in drier areas.

Hunting and access – 'burn grass'

'Burn grass time' gives us good hunting. It brings animals such as wallabies, kangaroos and turkeys on to the new fresh feed of green grasses and plants. But it does not only provide for us but also for animals, birds, reptiles and insects. After the 'burn' you will see hundreds of white cockatoos digging for grass roots. It's quite funny because they are no longer snow white but have blackened heads, and undercarriages black from the soot. The birds fly to the smoke to snatch up insects. Wallabies, kangaroos, bandicoots, birds, rats, mice, reptiles and insects all access these areas for food. If it wasn't burnt they would not be able to penetrate the dense and long speargrass and other grasses for these sources of food.

Noxious plants

Fires help to control noxious plants. These are introduced species such as horehound, Sida weeds, etcetera. Now these names are just what we know it as local names. I don't know what the scientific names or botanical names are. And the worst enemy on the rivers and wetlands is Mimosa which is a rapidly spreading bush.

Patterns of burning

I mentioned earlier that country tells you where and when to burn. Some observations are:


We follow the receding waters over our country. As the water dries up on top of the soil and the grass is dry enough to ignite, we burn. These areas are usually the low lying areas between hills and ridges. We call them 'flats'. The fires bring the moisture to the surface from under the soil, drying up the land for access and to feed the grass and plants into new growth.


Winds are very important to fire burning. There are different winds for different burns.

i) Big winds

Big winds will spread the fires rapidly, burning dry grasses, leaves and some dead wood. The fire being pushed by these winds does not allow for severe damage to take place on the grasses, plants and trees. The effect would be like passing your hands through the flame of a candle. You'll feel the heat but your hands will not blister.

ii) Slow winds

This is very little wind. Just enough to keep the fires burning. We call this 'slow burn' or 'colder burn'. These burns take place around areas you want to protect like areas of significance or also areas like the rainforest. The floors of these rainforests are dense with rotting vegetation and if burnt with hot fires or at the wrong time they will burn and smoulder for weeks causing extensive damage to the undergrowth and the life forms in it.

The slow burns usually take place very late afternoon knowing that as night approaches the wind will cease and the fires die out. These can be lit during the day if no winds are around at all. The most important thing with this burn is you are able to control the fire. It is easily put out with leafy branches when you don't want it to burn.

Hot burns

Hot burns are later. These are lit when the ridge country is dry. The hot fires sweep hard and fast over these areas. The trees and plants in these areas are protected by their bark and they're usually hard timbered. The nut fruits are also very hard, where you need a stone to crack them open. The hot fires assist them to burst, allowing the seeds to regenerate. A lot of the trees produce suckers, regrowth of the roots. We refer to them as suckers.

Flood plains

A good portion of our country is flood plains and paperbark swamps. These areas are the last to dry up after the wet. These areas are burnt like the 'flat areas'. There's still a lot of water under the soil.

Some areas that look like land are really masses of floating grass. These areas are burnt hotly before it becomes too dry. The burning takes place before the turtles hibernate. As the billabongs and channels drop their water levels the turtles bury themselves in the mud. This takes place only in certain areas. The grasses on these plains are very dense.

There are also large patches of cane grass on the edges of the billabongs. The rivers and creeks inland peter out and form series of billabongs and channels. During the wet they flood the plains country. This land type is also between the freshwater Finniss River, and the coast where the freshwater Finniss River ends and the saltwater meets the fresh.

Hibernating turtle places

Turtles normally hibernate on the edges of the river system further inland than the banks, or in the billabongs, on the edges of the billabongs or in channel type areas. Great care must be taken when burning those areas. You don't burn the areas when the turtles are hibernating. We hunt for these turtles by poking in the mud with a crowbar (nin-nin), locating them and digging them out of the mud.

On one occasion we discovered that people had driven out to the area and lit fires, burning the cane grass. We began to hunt for turtles and located a large number. But for each one that we located and went to dig up, all we pulled out was rotting pieces of turtles. The hibernating turtles were cooked and had rotted.

The burning of the cane grass caused the water temperature to become too hot. The fire was lit by Aboriginal people who did not know the country. They did not have any consultation with our people for the country. We call this 'indiscriminate burning', regardless of what persons they are.

The food chain

Patterns of burning mean that certain areas are burnt at different times. This is important to the food chain. Smoke brings on flowering. For example, areas that are burnt early provide early hunting and foraging for both man and animal life. We follow the burns. For example, with the fruiting of, for instance, the apple trees and the plum trees. Those that have been burnt earlier, their fruiting comes on earlier, and as the fruit is on its way out in one place, the next patch of 'burn' will then produce plums and apples that can be picked. So, it continues our food chain. When these are at the end of fruiting the next burnt area will be in fruit, thereby providing an ongoing food source.

I have spoken quite briefly on our 'burn grass' techniques. I could go on and on, believe you me. But time won't allow it. But my cousin here – Pulum, Kathy Deveraux – has written in-depth material on country in flames.

I'm sure you will find listening to her will not only be informative but also a learning experience from Mak Mak Marranunggu's age old tradition of 'burn grass'. Thank you.