Technical Workshop on the Management of Spinifex Deserts for Nature Conservation
11-13 July 1990
Host: WA Wildlife Research Centre, PO Box 51, Wanneroo WA 6065
Venue: Training Centre, CALM headquarters, Hayman Rd, Como

Warlpiri fire management

David Nash
ARC Postdoctoral Fellow, ANU; Visiting Fellow, AIATSIS


My involvement with the Warlpiri people of the 'Tanami Desert' has been primarily as a linguist, though over the last decade I have been travelling with some Warlpiris and others back to parts of their country away from existing vehicle tracks. For some people this is their first return since they walked around the country, anything from thirty to over sixty years previously. (See footnote.)

 In this presentation I sketch some as the aspects of senior Warlpiris' current relationship with fire, particularly the burning of spinifex away from larger permanent communities. Many other uses of fire are not covered -- see Kimber 1983 for a summary.

 Two basic points from what the Warlpiri have tried to teach me are:
Fire is a tool with many human uses.
Fire (warlu) is closely connected with rain and water (ngapa), in a cycle whereby one renews the other. This cycle is apparent in nature, and is expressed also in the Dreaming (Jukurrpa).

A typical burn

An ideal sequence of events for a burn begins with a senior man signalling by hand sign or radio from the lead vehicle that an area is to be ignited (yingkirni). Appropriate workers (kurdungurlu) get off the rear vehicle to burn, sometimes just dropping matches, but usually using a fire brush (maripi) of a branch or bunch of grass ignited from the first patch of spinifex. The brush is trailed (tiji-kanyi) in the two directions across the wind. Sometimes the trail of fire starts from the wheel tracks, but more commonly approaching it. (A factor is whether the vehicle will be moving on a bit before picking up the workers). The vehicles.move upwind to the edge of the target area of dead grass with the lead vehicle paused even further ahead, and the two men would bring the line of fire along the lee side of the wheel tracks to the vehicle, then climb on as it drove off. The vehicle engine is left idling as the people remaining in it wait and keep an eye on the two men burning. The lead vehicle in turn waits ahead, further across the wind, and in sight.

 This pattern of burning is underwritten by Fire Dreaming (Warlu Jukurrpa) events in the central 'Tanami Desert', wherein fire is made by two men using a fire-saw or fire-drill (and empowered by the correct songs), and two men carry the fire away from its source: one to the south, one to the north, forming a double hunting fire (lirramirni) which joins up and has the potential of travelling a long way to the west and north-west. This accord with the prevailing winter easterly or south-easterly winds.

 Cleaning the country with fire is seen as work, and the Dreaming also emphasises its co-operative nature, with the involvement of both land-holding patrimoieties, kirda and kurdungurlu.

Little work was cooperative. Whilst women always appear to have worked in groups or to have had children with them, if no other adult, each person collected for their own household. Men, too, usually seem to have hunted alone or in pairs, but from time to time would gather together for major hunts or fire drives using a variety of techniques, traps and blinds. (Peterson 1978:30)
On the west of a major Fire Dreaming area is a major Rain Dreaming area. A fire-produced cloud (lirranji) promotes rain, and the rainfall on the freshly burned areas (wini) brings green growth. Storms also bring lighting, which also is potential fire.

 Commonsense allowance is made for wind strength and direction, and fuel abundance. The spinifex cover is constantly being assessed during travel as to whether it will sustain a burn: it may be too patchy (yarluyarlu) or too much space between the hummocks. Safety is a prime consideration at the time of burning, and I have not heard of a vehicle being lost to fire when Warlpiris were involved.

 Fire is not used for large-scale hunting drives nowadays, and in any case most of the relevant small game is now gone. Nevertheless the Warlpiri are still keen on burning and do so at most opportunities. My account above is not of a pristine past, but part of the current views of senior Warlpiri land-holders. Though travel is by vehicle and not on foot, and they use matches for ignition, the appreciation of country and the practices are still driven by the Jukurrpa.

 Travel through country is related to burning in various ways. Memories of burns from previous winters play a part in plans for travel, partly as a navigation aid, partly because the scrub cover is reduced. The continual smokes show people moving openly around their country. This is 'Aboriginal radio', and the burned areas (wini) are a kind of calling-card.

Control of fire

Some constraints on burning of country include the following. Care is taken to avoid burning bean trees (which generally occur near soakages). Petrol engines are considered dangerous, and diesel much safer. There is wide avoidance of burning near the underground gas pipeline, or near cattle stations or towns, or, to some extent, along highways. There is a general impression that most Europeans do not like bushfires, epitomised by the roadside sign 'Love an unburnt country' (Bushfire Council, 2km east of Three Ways, NT).

 More fundamentally, control is an apparent theme of the Warlpiri vocabulary relating to fire. To give one example: among the 115 or so simple verb roots, only the verbs of burning distinguish whether the agent of burning is human or otherwise. Thus, 'The person is burning the grass' is expressed with the verb of human-controlled burning (purrami) (also applied to cooking, etc.), whereas 'The fire is burning the grass' is expressed with a different verb (jankami, kampami), which also can express 'The grass is burning'.

A conclusion

A widespread opinion which Warlpiri have expressed to me which relates to fire and land management generally is the desire for the development of network of (graded) vehicle tracks. These allow access by vehicle for a multitude of purposes, including burning, and on the same trip hunting and food-gathering, and renewing contact with sites and Dreamings. Over the past decade or two, the Warlpiri have gained access to vehicles in their own control, and the network of tracks has grown remarkably. These tracks are all in sufficient use that burning along them is common. It is understandable then that the Warlpiri would prefer resources to be directed to facilitating their ground travel, rather than, say, aerial burning. Aerial burning is a single-purpose trip, with minimal contact with the country, and much control passed outside Warlpiri hands.

Footnote: For help for these trips I acknowledge assistance variously from the Arid Zone Research Institute of the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, the Central Land Council (CLC), the Northern Land Council, and the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Assistance from the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (through the CLC) allowed me to focus on Warlpiri bushfire management in mid-1988.


Kimber, R.G.
 1983. Black Lightning: Aborigines and Fire in Central Australia and the Western Desert. Archaeol. Oceania 18:38-45.
Peterson, Nicolas.
 1978. The traditional pattern of subsistence to 1975, pp.25-35 in Basil S. Hetzel & H.J. Frith. 1978. The Nutrition of Aborigines in Relation to the Ecosystem of Central Australia. Papers presented at a Symposium CSIRO 23-26 October 1976 Canberra. [viii]+150pp. Melbourne: CSIRO.
Jeremy Hogarth. (Producer).
Series 'Voice of the Planet', for Maryland Public Television. Videoed at Palpati claypan, about 130km west of Warrego, 29-30 June 1988.
Further references on fire and Aborigines


These terms come from the work of the Warlpiri Dictionary Project.
(E) refers to the dialect of Eastern Warlpiri as spoken at Alekarenge (Ali-Curung).
Revised May 1999 on further advice from PK Latz.
   grass, especially spinifex; also Aristidainaequiglumis(= janpa, mulkunju (E))
marnanganpa (or marnangarnpa)
  feather-top spinifex, Plectrachne sp. Cf. warrpa
   seed-heads; spinifex, Triodia sp. Cf. marnanganpa, muna (E)
   seed heads (of spinifex grass)
   open country with spinifex cover, spinifex plains (= ngataji (E), warlpawu (E))
   soft/sticky spinifex, Triodia pungens
muna (E)
   includes Triodia spicata, spear-grass (= warrpa)
   [muna in Warlmanpa and Warumungu is 'spinifex, Triodia spp.']
   Bull Spinifex, Triodia longiceps (giant grey spinifex; contains no resin
   freshly burnt country
kuntara (E)
   young regrowth stage of burnt-off country
   area of spinifex with gaps between hummocks; not really suitable for burning  Cf. tingki ~ rdingki 'gap'
   area with patches of bare ground; not really suitable for burning  Cf. yarlu 'bare ground, open area'
   large clumps of spinifex (name possibly because it burns with bangs)
   old spinifex; very dry and very tall  Cf. tarltarlpanu
   rotten (applied to meat etc); of spinifex, considered to be a regrettable stage of spinifex, to be
avoided by burning it before
   spinifex resin; adze
   spinifex wax in ground (in termite mounds)
   prickles, spikes
Further references on fire and Aborigines
Date created: 16 March 1998
Last modified: 27 May 1999
Maintained by: David Nash
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© 1999 David Nash