Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Living with Landscape Fire: Landholder Understandings of Agency, Scale and Control within Fiery Entanglements

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Living with Landscape Fire: Landholder Understandings of Agency, Scale and Control within Fiery Entanglements

Article excerpt

Abstract

Around the world, debates over how to manage and adapt to bushfires (or wildfires) are increasingly prominent as more and different people, many of whom have little or no experience with landscape fire or land management, inhabit fire-prone environments. But bushfire events represent only the most visible aspect of complex entanglements which operate across huge temporal and spatial scales and over which humans have very limited control. In this article, we focus on how Australian landholders of settler or migrant heritage understand scalar complexities and agency and control within human/landscape fire entanglements. In view of the fact that the learning styles of landholders new to rural areas have been developed in different environments with very different challenges, we also ask whether immersion within rural, fire-prone environments influences ways of 'knowing' land and fire.

Keywords

Fire, landholders, scale, agency, entanglements, Australia

Introduction

In Australia, the USA and elsewhere, bushfires (or wildfires) burst into human consciousness by threatening, and sometimes consuming, life and property on a broad scale. Debates about how humans can manage and adapt to bushfires are increasingly prominent; for example it has been stated that 'No subject related to land management in Australia generates more heat or less light than fire' (Blake, 2003: 120, cited in Halliday et al., 2012: 206). These debates are complicated by the fact that, as rural demographics change, more and different people, many of whom have little or no experience with landscape fire or land management, are inhabiting fire-prone landscapes (Eriksen and Prior, 2011). Moreover, the ways in which these people learn about land and fire management frequently differ, at least initially, from those of long-term inhabitants in rural areas. It has been suggested that these differences in learning styles are due, at least in part, to the 'property centric' (Cooke and Lane, 2015: 46) orientation of relative newcomers which contrasts with the more social positioning of long-term farmers who have a 'collective interest in maintaining productive rural landscapes' (2015: 49, see also Eriksen and Prior, 2011).

Unlike rural in-migrants, bushfire does not recognise property boundaries. And bushfire events themselves represent only the most visible aspect of complex entanglements which operate across huge temporal and spatial scales. These entanglements include, amongst a multitude of other actors, land topography, weather and climate, plant responses to stress, the persistence of weeds, human prescribed landscape fire, planning decisions, legislation and funding for emergency services. Traditionally, many indigenous peoples have maintained a relational ontology around fire that has evolved over millennia of co-existence and recognises the fragility of human control over fire events (Gammage, 2011; Head, 1994; Langton, 1998; Miller and Davidson-Hunt, 2010; Yerran, 2002). Whilst paying some attention to Aboriginal relationships with fire, however, attempts within wider Australian society to develop new cultures to enable 'co-existence with fire' (Howitt, 2014) have tended to focus on the science of fire and fire management, the logics of planning and response and the building of ever more complex fire resources and institutions.

In recent years, academics informed by indigenous and other perspectives have called for debate, policy and practice to incorporate understanding of the broader relationships within which bushfire moves, swells and recedes (Franklin, 2006; Griffiths, 2009; Howitt, 2014; Langton, 1998; Maclean, 2009; Williams, 2014). In particular, concern has been expressed that wider Australian society is failing to get to grips with issues of scale (Griffiths, 2009; Howitt, 2014; Williams, 2014) and the shifting patterns of control (Griffiths, 2009; Howitt, 2014) inherent within these relationships. …

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