9 November 2011 – Australia used to be one big farm. Before the days when our wealth grew like sheaves of wheat, and we were rich from riding the sheep’s back, the country grew enough to create a varied diet of vegetables, and sweet and savoury meats. Large, destructive bushfires were unknown.

Europeans used ploughs to tend the land, but these have never been suited to our soils or climate. Asians use water and terracing to bring forth their crops, but our land never had enough consistent rain to allow this. Here, the plough was made of flame, the terracing made of soil types and natural landform. Here, deliberate decisions were made about what to grow where, and why, with a careful plan as to when to harvest. Fire was an implement, from Tasmania to the Kimberley. And there were no monocultures like those Europeans planted over thousands of acres; in Australia there was multiple cropping, sometimes rotational, with dozens of varieties, and a general focus on pasture.

Who could have made such sophisticated decisions? Well, it appears now that, with the exception of Kangaroo Island and the far south-west of Tasmania, up until 1788 the whole of Australia was a managed landscape, a bloody great big farm.

There were many “owners”, who variously cooperated and squabbled (just like the rest of the world), but all understood the farming method. According to newly published, all-encompassing research by  ANU Professor Bill Gammage, the traditional view of Australia’s vegetation cover is off the mark.

The notion that Aboriginal people used fire to simply flush out wallabies so they could be speared or clubbed, and to make the country easier to pass through, is about as accurate as thinking that buildings design themselves. This is a shocking notion: it means that not only was Terra Nullius wrong in law (aka Mabo, Wik, and the vibe of the thing), but also patently wrong to the eye of the observer, had they only known what they were looking at.

What we see now, as we travel from the suburbs, through the peri-urban fringes, and beyond through national parks to farmlands (and beyond that to the desert if we make time), is a land that is dramatically changed since 1788.

Back then, the most common description of the unsettled country was: “it resembled a gentleman’s park”, back in England. How can that be? Hundreds of such references are presented in Gammage’s excellent book, each by trusted contemporaneous observers such as explorers, surveyors, even Governor Macquarie. Paintings and drawings, painstakingly detailed in their representations of country – for these were the photographers of the times – show large tracts cleared or semi-cleared, in definite patterns, according to the various purposes of food gathering.

Suffice to say that fire was used little and often: here not there, now not then, as a way of encouraging some food species, discouraging others, and maintaining a generally safe, livable environment on a continent with significant climate variability. Had they allowed mega-fires to occur, large-scale population extinctions would have occurred with it, and there is no record of these in either archeological records or in the dreaming stories.

The hot potato of this knowledge for us in the wider building industry is that “bushfire” is a demon of our own making. Megafires such as 2009’s Black Saturday, and others like it back throughout the 20th Century, were unheard of prior to the late 1800s, when the well-treed grasslands had been either cleared totally, or allowed to re-grow with dense “under wood” (an archaic term). Yet now, we are expected to provide safe shelter in these changed landscapes, which are now severely fire-prone. This is a double whammy: climate change bringing increased extremes and variability, with a general increase in baseline temperature, and changed bush management that encourages wild fires.

This change in how we manage the wider landscape has escaped the attention of governments at all levels.  Adherence to the bushfire code AS3959-2009 is no guarantee of survival, and may lead to a false sense of security. It adds cost to construction, and encourages acceptance of the status quo of the likelihood of fires, assuming a sense of resignation and powerlessness. That cannot be allowed to continue, and we must challenge that defeatist attitude.

Governments are representative of the people, and peak industry bodies such as BDA, AIA, and PIA have a responsibility to lead governments from places of technical ignorance into the light of better technical understanding. We are the custodians of technical knowledge, and governments acquire it from us. But first we must develop that technical knowledge, and Gammage’s research is a huge leap forward in that area. Now we must build on that, and get serious about how we manage this country, before we allow it to just burn up. Apathy and resignation to the status quo is as fatal as any bushfire.

[The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, published by Allen & Unwin, 2011.]

Dick Clarke is past president and fellow of the Building Design Association of  NSW