At the heart of Our Dangerous Friend is author David Jefford Ward’s belief that traditional Noongar knowledge should be a respected source of bushfire philosophy, ecology and management in south west Australia.
In fact Ward, who started as a workman in the then Forests Department, places more value on Noongar bushfire knowledge than some refereed scientific papers.
Ward also argues, from his background as a research scientist, that the black fire marks under the charcoal on the stems of many old balga (grasstrees) give some insight into fire frequency back to the 1700s and that before Europeans arrived Noongar people managed the Australian dry forests and woodlands found in south west Australia very well.
The Bridgetown based writer says Noongars managed fire very simply, albeit based on deep historical knowledge, by burning frequently, in most places as often as the leaf litter would carry a mild creeping fire.
They also used green branches to swat out fires heading for places they did not want to burn such as spear shaft thickets along creeks and walked near late spring or summer fires in little clothing, including bare feet.
The book is a collection of essays, which can make it appear a bit disjointed at times but, as a resident who experienced the 2019 Yanchep bushfire and a journalist who has been reporting on bushfires for the past 15 years, I found the way Ward dealt with the subject matter fascinating and informative.
Essentially, Ward argues the broader scope of philosophy can help get closer to the truth and that history and practical experience can be astringent cross checks on findings by the scientific method.
While Our Dangerous Friend does not refer to the Yanchep area, Ward told Yanchep News Online that he has done some research in the Wanneroo district.
His research undertaken for Mattiske Consulting for a 2004 Water Corporation report – The Fire History of Native Vegetation on the Gnangara Water Mound – included in April and May of that same year a survey of grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea preissii) made just north of Perth to help understand the fire history of the vegetation on the Gnangara mound, an important groundwater source for the metropolitan area.
“Using an established technique, the grasstree stems were cleaned of charcoal, revealing annual growth marks, and marks of old fires,’’ the report said.
“The oldest grasstree surveyed was over 230 years old and the fires could be read back to 1842.
“A slightly younger one, in better condition at the base, was readable back to 1822.’’
The report said the Yanchep area near the coast and just west of the Gnangara mound, was an important meeting place for Noongars, who relied on the roots of bulrushes and the fruit of zamia palms to feed big gatherings.
“Both these plants were regularly burned, the rushes for harvest access and flavour, and the zamias to stimulate fruiting,’’ the report said.
In Our Dangerous Friend, David Ward says bushfire management of destructive fires is for Australians no trivial matter.
But to reintroduce regular, patchy burning in areas – now with heavy fuel loads – in a method similar to that which was used by Noongars long before Europeans arrived is no simple matter.
Ward sees the need for reliable scientific information but also the need to better understand the long history of human fire use.
Essay 18 contains a chapter, Bidi Burning, which says an individual Noongar track was called a bidi (plural bidi-bidi).
Ward believes bidi-bidi still have great significance to Noongars since they are intimately entwined not only with fire, but also with history, spiritual matters, family territory (moort boodja) and land custodianship.
There are two recreational walk tracks maintained by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) – Munda Bidi and the Bibbulmun Track – Ward suggests could be used for bidi burning.
While Ward is critical of some refereed scientific papers on bushfire management, he gives credit to the Bushfire Front of Western Australia (an organisation of retired foresters with combined centuries of real fire experience between them) and also to DBCA and Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) crews taking part in prescribed burns, which he said needed courage, cool heads, careful planning and a practical understanding of the matter.
Ward says he started in the Forests Department as a workman 50 years ago, then became a technician working on experimental bushfires with the late George Peet OAM and Rick Sneeuwjack, both with an MSc in forestry.
“By part time study I progressed to a bachelor’s degree in maths and biology at the then WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin University),’’ Ward said.
“I took study leave and completed a Master of Human Ecology degree at the Free University of Brussels in 1992 (magna cum laude) and an International Certificate in Human Ecology from WHO.
“In 2011 I completed a PhD in Landscape Ecology at Curtin University.’’
Ward says at 84-years-old he has done no field work recently.
“I offered to train someone when I left CALM, but no response.
“I have a pile of data still in need of analysis and publication.’’