Teacher Worksheet

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Teacher Preparation

Learning intentions: Students will...

  • ... understand how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use fire to manage the savanna
  • ... recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use their knowledge of seasons and local conditions to produce cool burns that are sensitive to local ecosystems
  • ... understand that cool burns have a lower ecological impact than the more damaging wildfires which may occur later in the season.

Success criteria: Students can…

  • ... work collaboratively and independently
  • ... participate in class and group discussions
  • ... conduct research online
  • ... produce a report to share with the class.

Teacher content information: In Australia, 23-25% of the land is covered in tropical savanna. Each year in the late dry season, hot fires sweep through a large proportion of this area. Hot burns result in about 25% of the landscape being burnt, which contributes between 1% and 3% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (Note: this figure just accounts for nitrous oxide and methane rather than the total emissions that includes any carbon dioxide not absorbed by new growth.). Before European contact, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the tropical savanna managed Country using fire during the early dry season. Over the past ten years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land managers, scientists and policy makers have been working on ways to reintroduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge to managing Country.

There are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with different cultures and languages living across the tropical savanna in northern Australia. For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have actively managed savanna areas using fire. Their knowledge of the seasons and local conditions enable them to manage fire effectively. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples traditionally burn Country to promote the growth of abundant bush tucker, to improve access to certain areas and to protect important sites from destructive wildfires.

Cool burns are a land management technique. Started soon after the wet season, before the grass completely dries out, cool burns do not damage plants, seeds or animals to any significant extent. During a cool burn, the grasses on the ground burn slowly, allowing most of the small animals to escape. Seedlings, green grass, tree trunks and fallen logs are not burnt or damaged. The rising heat from the burning grass usually won’t singe the eucalyptus leaves above. Overnight, the cool moisture in the air will put out any remaining fires before the morning.

Once European contact began, a series of devastating disease epidemics killed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Those who remained were soon displaced from their land as it was carved up for agriculture. After Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples stopped looking after the savanna, the country became more vulnerable to hot fires. These wildfires can burn for days or even weeks. Hot fires can cover vast areas of land, creating significant impacts on our environment and the pastoral industry. In some areas, over half of the land gets burnt by hot fires every year.

Without cool burns at the start of the dry season, hot burns can get out of control, consuming vast areas of accumulated fire fuel. It has been proven that the reintroduction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management practices - such as cool burning at the start of the dry season - can dramatically reduce the incidence and intensity of hot wildfires later in the dry season.

Following the recent Black Summer (the 2019/20 Australian bushfire season), there has been a huge growth in interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management practices (source), both in Australia and around the world (source). Managing landscapes using these practices can help to “prevent significant amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, reduce destructive fires, promote a productive landscape (and) increase biodiversity” (source).

The lessons in this unit will help students to understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management practices and the value these practices can bring to all of us.

Important: Because many of the things you will be discussing in this lesson involve personal experiences and feelings, it's a good idea to work with students to set some ground rules for sharing ideas and feelings. Use this factsheet to guide you: Handling Sensitive Topics and Issues. It is important that teachers subtly monitor the welfare and wellbeing of students during this lesson and for a couple of weeks afterward to make sure they are feeling safe and able to cope with the content raised in this lesson.

Tip: For many people in Australia – including and especially young people – the bushfires were and continue to be a source of considerable anxiety and stress. This is particularly true for those who were immediately impacted by the fires.

If you need further support for students please refer to: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/bushfires-and-mental-health/

Teaching sequence

Part A: Activating Prior Knowledge

Step 1. Invite students to complete a SEE THINK WONDER activity around the following image (also available on the Student Worksheet):

Step 2. Once complete, you can encourage students to team up with a classmate to share their ideas.

Part B: Introduction To Cool Burns

Step 1. Now share the following clip with students:

Historical burns - https://vimeo.com/79466988

Once complete, engage students in a class discussion around the following questions:

  • Historically, what has fire been used to achieve?
  • How have the activities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples impacted on the environment?
  • What are the main issues presented in the video?

Step 2. Now watch the following clip:

Restoring Country with cool burns - http://vimeo.com/79474009

Again, engage students in a discussion around this clip, this time using the following questions:

  • Is a bushfire a hot or a cool burn?
  • What is the difference between hot and cool burns?
  • What are some problems with hot burns?

Step 3. Now ask your students to complete the 'I used to think ... but now I think ...' prompts on the Student Worksheet around what they noticed in these clips.

Part C: Investigation

Break the class into groups of four to five students. Explain to the class that each group will compile a report about how and why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use fire to manage Country. They will select one 'line of inquiry' question to research (see table on the Student Worksheet). The Factsheet - How Do Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Peoples Use Fire To Manage Country? can be used as a primary source of information.

Criteria for inquiry:

  • Compile a report in one of the following formats: Word, Prezi, video, PowerPoint, podcast, Padlet.
  • The report must have six photos from the Cool Australia Digital Libraries to help illustrate their explanations.
  • The report should be approximately 300 words (this helps to avoid cutting and pasting text or requiring extra time).
  • Using three photocopied drawings (see Hot Tips) of the savanna outline - you can use your own or ask students to create their own - ask students to:

* colour in one of the outlines before a fire during the dry season
* colour in the second after a cool burn
* colour in the third after a hot burn
* use labels to highlight the differences between cool and hot burns.

Each student could have a specific role within the group. They might choose particular roles in order to overcome communication difficulties, thereby enabling greater success at completing the tasks (e.g. Leader, Editor, Recorder, Spokesperson, Timekeeper, Research Assistant, Reflector and Checker).

Some other resources include:

Part D: Communication Checklists

Students are to produce two checklists that could be used as tools to help land managers in successfully conducting cool burns in the tropical savanna. Students can work independently or in small groups.

  1. The first checklist presents the local conditions required for a fire cool enough to burn the dry grasses without damaging the savanna. Students need to consider the season, the wind, the moisture or lack of moisture in the plants, the chance of a fire becoming a damaging hot fire and the timing of the last fire in that location.
  2. The second checklist will be used to evaluate what happened after the cool fire went through, showing whether any damage was done to the savanna. Students need to consider the following: did the flames go up tree trunks? Were logs or other animal habitats burnt or left smouldering? Were green shrubs destroyed? Did animals escape? These examples address only the negative consequences, but students could also choose to focus on other effects.

Students can use the Student Worksheet to create these checklists.

The reports can be marked for formative assessment purposes.


Invite students to work independently to complete the following (also available on the Student Worksheet):

  • What information in this lesson was new to you?
  • What information was connected to what you already knew?
  • What is still unclear or confusing for you?

Differentiated Learning

Students requiring extension activities can investigate how their state or territory mitigates bushfire or wildfire threats to people, homes, farms and other property, as well as to our environment.

Teacher Reflection