Good fire conversations: Reflecting on the ‘Tomorrow’s Country’ SSN Interdisciplinary Incubator project

Cultural fire planner Mick Bourke at a djandak wi or cultural burn at Yerrip, Djaara Country, Victoria. Photo: Tim Neale

Yes, fire often evokes fear, but as SSN convenor and 2020 Interdisciplinary Incubator recipient Timothy Neale’s work shows, fire can also be good. Learning how to research fire management ethically and productively requires a multi-vocal and interdisciplinary approach. In this blogpost about the SSN-funded “Tomorrow’s Country: Creating better pathways for cultural fire research” project, we learn about relative ideas of ‘good’ evidence and how ‘good’ conversation across disciplines and with First Nations people can both improve and challenge disciplinary views.

For a long time, bushfires have been framed in Western settler societies as a threat or hazard. They threaten the things we value and so we’ve established agencies and infrastructures to try and stop or mitigate them. But, at the same time, fire actually has all these other non-threatening or even beneficial meanings, particularly for First Nations people. Fire can actually be good for Country. I first learnt about this from Uncle Rodney Carter, Trent Nelson and Mick Bourke whom I met on Djaara peoples’ Country in Victoria a few years ago. I was lucky enough to learn a bit about how djandak wi or “healthy fire” was beginning to be used there. At the right time, a fire in the landscape can actually reduce its risks, or promote certain species, or settle its spirit. But, First Nations people and their knowledge of fire have largely been ignored in southeast Australia until very recently.

Over the past few years, since 2017, I’ve been involved in research projects that engage in this space, thinking through some of opportunities and challenges for collaborative fire management and research. For the SSN Incubator project, we deliberately posed this question in relation to a triad of Traditional Owners, university researchers, and government agencies. We asked: “how should these three parties work together to build a body of evidence of the environmental, social, economic and cultural benefits of cultural fire?” It was imperative to begin with First Nations stakeholders. Recently, there have been enthusiasm and opportunities to involve First Nations people in the management of flammable landscapes. However, there are no roadmaps and many obstacles. University academics and government agencies in settler colonial contexts like Australia (and where I was raised, in Aotearoa New Zealand) are increasingly being called on to be ‘good partners’. Recent treaty processes in Victoria and elsewhere signal a move toward shared governance. It follows that settler governments and settler researchers have a lot of work to do to get our house in order.

The second part of our question centres on building a body of evidence. Whilst many present government policies are not necessarily based on much evidence, any changes in policy today typically need to be justified with abundant evidence. Further, they require this evidence to be ‘scientific’ in order to be recognisable. Whilst there is a great deal of knowledge, there is relatively little scientific evidence relating to the many benefits of Indigenous fire practices here in southeast Australia. Our project recognises that we cannot just follow the standard ‘recipes’ for doing research and creating evidence because those recipes have historically marginalised First Nations peoples.

Setting up ecological monitoring before a djandak wi or cultural burn. Photo: Tim Neale.

We thus applied for the SSN Incubator grant to allow us to continue these conversations with a range of First Nations and non-indigenous researchers, fire managers, land management practitioners and others. This created a space to discuss the types of research they would like to develop together. It turned out that a key to this process has been figuring out, together, how fire management and research work in our respective domains. Before we could successfully frame the questions for fire research, we found it useful to ask: What are the drivers? What are the rules? What processes and projects have worked before? We hosted small workshops where we listen to one another’s’ views about what we think is valuable and feasible, and what we would each like to see develop in the future.

For me, the primary advantage of interdisciplinary research is also its biggest challenge: interdisciplinary work involves reflecting on and explaining the assumptions of your own disciplinary background and training. Working with colleagues from different knowledge traditions is demanding, but illuminating. For example, one thing I learned from my collaborators, and that I will keep learning, is how hard it is to produce an ecological fact, or even just ecological evidence. My own background in the field of science and technology studies (STS) had taught me plenty about how lab-based scientists have to parametrise experiments. I am thus well trained to argue about the relationships between their experiments and the world. However, when your experiments are in the world, in living landscapes, out on Country, creating an assured knowledge about them is complex and difficult work. This appreciation really brings into focus the importance of deliberating over the “how” of research if you hope to alter, or depart from, the usual recipe.

Fire practitioners of different ages at a cultural burn at Dhunghala, Yorta Yorta Country, Victoria. Photo: Time Neale


Dr Timothy Neale is an anthropologist and geographer who holds a DECRA Senior Research Fellow Position at Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Institute. He is the convener of the SSN.

You can learn more about Dr Neale’s  ongoing work here. His collaborators on the grant were Andrea Rawluk, Will Smith, Euan Ritchie, and Tim Doherty, as well as individuals from Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, Barapa Land and Water, and the Department of Environment, Land, Planning and Water.

This is the third feature in the Interdisciplinary Experiences series