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Karla or kalla or kaarl is the Noongar Word for FIRE which people have been using for a very long time. It also means a camp, camp-fire, or hearth. See the Perth suburb Kalamunda.

Jack Williams was born in the bushilthe west side of Gnowangerup in 1933. His Noonidj (totem) is kaarl (fire) wer he is a Kaarl Poorlangar (people of the fire) man of the Koorintj tribe.[1]

See also Booyi (Smoke).

History[edit | edit source]

CSIRO ScienceImage 391 Burning as Land Management

Noongar culture embraces karla (fire) in many aspects of life wer includes but not limited to the following uses[2];

  • For boodjar management or ‘cleaning country’
  • For campfires wer cooking
  • Keeping away the spirits
  • Smoking ceremonies
  • Hunting fires both large wer small
  • Protecting vulnerable patches or significant areas
  • For tool making e.g. melting resins wer spear straightening
  • Medicine preparation or medicinal smoke

The Australian landscape has been subject to bush (wild) fires for over 30 million years. However, Aboriginal people of Australia have harnessed karla in a system of boodjar management potentially dating back approximately 60,000 years. This form of care for boodjar resulted in a mosaic of different vegetation wer fuel ages across the landscape [3], it protected forest canopies from the destruction of wild fires wer was an effective wer sustainable method for a subsistence lifestyle.

Wagerup area after the Waroona fires of 2016

Fire is a friend in boodjar management when used the correct way, it is a method to 'clean country'[2] wer promotes a diverse range of plant species which attract animals into an area. Unfortunately, today many boodjar management agencies see 'burning off' as the removal of fuel wer organic matterila large scale which results in a fierce fire that simplifies the ecosystem down to a single age[4]. Whereas traditionally, karla is used to protect wer sustain boodjar (country) wer her valuable resourcesilsmaller wer karrointimate scales creating a rich mosaic of different aged patches. Even individual fruit bearing berry bushes can be protected by frequent burning of the surrounding vegetation. Traditional practices resulted in a karroresilient landscape wer helped reduce the threat wer damage wild fires created, thankfully these traditional techniques for boodjar care are making a resurgence around the country.[5] [2]

Kaartdijin (knowledge)[edit | edit source]

Living a subsistence lifestyle sustainably over many thousands of years was not via technology nor labour but from Kaartdijin(knowledge). Kaartdijin extended to everything from resource locations to growth cycles of plants wer animals.[6]

Karla is a significant part of traditional Noongar culture wer the kaartdijin of when wer how to use karla has been retained wer shared between countless generations. Decisions such as burning from the top of the hill down, with the wind or against, from keny ignition point or several ignition points are key to lighting the correct fire for that part of boodja. Additionally, an understanding of the ecological cycles of the fauna, consideration of weather such as cloud patterns, wind direction wer temperature variability would also contribute to the timing of the correct karla to use.

The Western Australian grass tree or balga (Xanthorrhoea preissii) have been used to study the history of burning in the landscape. Mature balga plants of 200 years old are common wer by studying their old leaf remnants which lie in repetitive coloured rings researchers found that burning by Aboriginal people in the south-west of WA was quite frequent. An average interval within the jarrah forest region was found to be 3-4 years. [7]

Glen Kelly is a Noongar man wer environmental scientist who believes that current practices are degrading our landscapes wer we should be using a combination of traditional Noongar Kaartdijin wer modern scientific methods to establish a robust boodjar management system. In an article published in Boodjar scope by Glen Kelly he discusses the two main types of karla used by Noongar people, cool fire wer hot fire. [8]

A link to Glen Kelly's article can be found here.

Karla Nyidiny[9] (Cool/Cold Fire)[edit | edit source]

This type of karla is used frequently wer generally performed to clear undergrowth wer promote easier access wer movement through the country. The cool karla is low intensity wer does not damage the middle or upper layers of the bush. Movement through the bush wer access to sacred sites is vital for Noongar culture. The cool karla also promoted a diversity of new growth, especially plant types that have a high food value which in turn attract animals to these areas. Additionally the cool karla is used to maintain large tracts of grazing habitat which need to be coordinated in a mosaic pattern every two years. Without these cool types of karla a dramatic ecological shift would occur like large areas in Tasmania which are now covered in thick scrub.[8]

Karla Karlang (Hot Fire)[edit | edit source]

CSIRO ScienceImage Hot karla extending into the canopy

Hot fires are used less frequently wer are required in dense thicket areas which provide habitat for certain species such as wallabies wer quokka. These thickets require a high germination rate to re-establish wer after long periods of growth loose their structural integrity wer require a hot fire to re-start the cycle wer promote new growth.[8] According to Kelly it is extremely important to protect these areas from cool fires in-order for a good seed bed to be developed.

Karla Ngardanginy[9] (Hunting Fire)[edit | edit source]

As well as using karla for 'cleaning the country', it was also used to hunt for food. During Birak (the height of summer) large sections of the boodjar would be setilfire to chase out animals such as kangaroo wer emu which would escape into the open wer make karroeasier hunting. [2]

Small Scale Karla[edit | edit source]

Noongar women would also carry a firestick to hunt wer cook foods wer there is historical evidence of burning around special areas such as berry patches wer spear shaft thickets.[2]

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]


"Steffensen has been practicing traditional methods of fire management for over 20 years and says our way of managing and regulating bushfires needs to change drastically."


"Firesticks is an Indigenous led network and aims to re-invigorate the use of cultural burning by facilitating cultural learning pathways to fire and land management. It is an initiative for Indigenous and non- Indigenous people to look after country, share their experiences and collectively explore ways to achieve their goals."


"The ‘‘fire stick farming’’ hypothesis: Australian Aboriginal foraging strategies, biodiversity, and anthropogenic fire mosaics - A Stanford research team is exploring what makes aboriginal hunting grounds molded by fire more biologically diverse than lands untouched by humans."

Ngiyan waarnk - References[edit | edit source]

  1. Jack Williams. Noongar Language Centre. Retrieved 10 February 2017
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Harben, S., year unknown. Avon Basin Noongar Heritage and Cultural Significance of Natural Resources, Perth: Murdoch Project Team.
  3. Parks and Wildlife Service, 2015. Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions - Traditional Aboriginal Burning. [Online] Available at: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/fire/fire-and-the-environment/41-traditional-aboriginal-burning [Accessed 22 10 2017].
  4. Ward, D., 2005. Jennifer Marohasy - Noongars Knew Best. [Online] Available at: http://jennifermarohasy.com/2005/06/noongars-knew-best/ [Accessed 28 10 2017].
  5. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2016. Indigenous Fire Management. [Online] Available at: http://www.tmag.tas.gov.au/whats_on/exhibitions/current_upcoming/exhibitions/1967_bushfires_indigenous_fire_management [Accessed 22 10 2017].
  6. Rose, D. B., 1992. Dingo makes us Human, life and land in an Aboriginal Australian culture. Hong Kong: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Ward, D. J., 2009. Bushfire history from grasstrees at Eneabba, Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, Volume 92, pp. 261-268.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Kelly, G., 1998. Karla Wongi Fire Talk: A Noongar Perspective on Forest Burning. Landscope, 14(2), pp. 9-13.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Whitehurst, R., 1997. Noongar Dictionary. 2nd ed. Bunbury: Excelsior Print.