Protecting “wilderness” and removing human involvement in “nature” was a core pillar of the modern conservation movement through the 20th century. Conservation approaches and legislation informed by this narrative fail to recognise that Aboriginal people have long valued, used, and shaped most landscapes on Earth. Aboriginal people curated open and fire-safe Country for millennia with fire in what are now forested and fire-prone regions. Settler land holders recognised the importance of this and mimicked these practices. The Land Conservation Act of 1970 in Victoria, Australia, prohibited burning by settler land holders in an effort to protect natural landscapes. We present a 120-year record of vegetation and fire regime change from Gunaikurnai Country, southeast Australia. Our data demonstrate that catastrophic bushfires first impacted the local area immediately following the prohibition of settler burning in 1970, which allowed a rapid increase in flammable eucalypts that resulted in the onset of catastrophic bushfires. Our data corroborate local narratives on the root causes of the current bushfire crisis. Perpetuation of the wilderness myth in conservation may worsen this crisis, and it is time to listen to and learn from Indigenous and local people, and to empower these communities to drive research and management agendas.