Year

2016

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research

Abstract

Focusing on Australians of settler heritage, this PhD shows how an evaluation which adopts and refines a more-than-human conceptual framework can generate deep understandings of human /fire /land relationships with implications for land and fire management, training, policy and academic research.

The research was initially commissioned to evaluate the Hotspots Fire Training Program (Hotspots) which seeks to train landholders in New South Wales in the sustainable management of landscape fire. In commissioning the evaluation, Hotspots staff were seeking to provide funding bodies with substantive evidence that the program achieves its objectives and to identify ways in which the program could be improved. In order to respond to these expectations, this thesis includes a utilisation, or service, evaluation focusing on the success of Hotspots within the framework defined by staff members (Appendix A). However, this approach privileges the views of program staff and funding bodies about what constitutes success and may limit the relevance of the evaluation beyond its immediate context. Alternative approaches, such as pluralistic evaluations, begin with the lives of the human participants, seeking to understand how the program is positioned within their lives and whether or not it is relevant to them. Yet even the complexities of human experience may not be sufficient to understand the ways in which a training program is entangled in fiery relations. In other research fields, recent more-than-human research has shown the complex ways in which the bio- (including human), geo- and atmo-spheres are inextricably entangled. Such insights have important implications for research into, and understandings of, human /fire /land relationships.

Until recently, almost all fire training projects working with non-indigenous Australians framed fire as a hazard, failing to acknowledge the much more complex role of fire within the Australian material / cultural environment. This is now changing but, with notable exceptions, current projects working to encourage sympathy with the potential benefits of fire provide a scientific and legislative education in using and managing fire in the landscape. This is in-keeping with an Australian history in which the ‘ways of knowing’ attributed to settlers and their descendants, and the laws and culture created around these assumed ways of knowing, have tended towards the ‘modern’.

Historical and contemporary evidence suggests that this may not tell the whole story about the dynamic relationships of non-indigenous Australians with landscape fire, however. As Australia struggles to come to terms with its cultural and environmental history and seeks to work towards a more just and sustainable future, there is evidence to suggest that its current inhabitants of non-indigenous heritage may be open to different ways of knowing landscape fire. Rather than viewing knowledge as a solely cerebral, or even human social process, this thesis suggests that fiery knowledge develops as human minds and bodies are challenged by multiple, multidirectional, more-than-human relationships continually generating change and demanding responses within fire-prone environments.

Whilst landholders are learning to co-exist with landscape fire through observation, experimentation and adaptation, researchers, staff members of training organisations and policy-makers frequently spend much less time actively engaging with land and fire and far more time in environments which demand forms of accountability amenable to measurement and control such as journal papers, highly structured workshop plans and policy documents. Perhaps as a result, institutional responses to human co-existence with landscape fire have largely focused on abstracted sciences of fire and fire management, the logics of planning and response and the building of ever more complex resources and infrastructure. These approaches do have their place but represent just one of many ways of knowing fire. Thus, the main body of this thesis draws on the potential of conceptual paradigms which look beyond the human and human agency to explore how fire training programs weave into and through broader human / landscape fire entanglements and to consider the implications and potential outcomes of promoting different ways of knowing landscape fire.

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