Slow burns and spectacular fires: suppression, white possession, and the production of Australia’s modern mega-fires

Authors: Lauren Pearson*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Historical Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Australia and New Zealand
Keywords: Australia, fire, settler-colonialism, historical geographies
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 36
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Australia’s landscape is one defined by fire. Over millennia, the continent’s traditional caretakers, Aboriginal Australians, have wielded fire as an ally to manage the continent referred to as the ‘largest estate on earth’ (Gammage 2011). Australia’s fire history is distinct from the continent’s colonial fire story. Empirical analysis has tracked a new scale and form of fires since colonization, culminating in the 2019-2020 “Black Summer,” the largest, most intense, and economically catastrophic fire on record, which prompted the government to note that the fires were “on a scale we have not seen in Australia in recorded history” (NSW Government 2020, iv). These distinct and contradictory fire histories demand a closer look, one that prioritizes the nature and processes of settler colonialism and its material effects. This paper will ask how did Australia’s mega-fires materialize on a landscape shaped by fire for centuries? How has the logic of dispossession and settlement engendered ideas about ownership, control, and domination of the land post-contact, and what are the implications of these devastating material implications as witnessed in the 2019-2020 fire season? In order to answer, how were Australia’s mega-fires produced, detailed attention needs to be paid to the institutional infrastructure built during the settler colonial period, how the physical environment was understood, and how these ideas were translated into land-based practices. Analyzing the historical geography of the greater Blue Mountains area through the lens of settler colonialism, this paper will show how Black Summer was a preventable (un)natural yet spectacular disaster.

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