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How indigenous knowledge could help prevent Australian bushfires

A year on from the bushfires that ravaged Australia, could indigenous knowledge be key to minimising future devastation?

A year on from the bushfires that ravaged Australia, could indigenous knowledge be key to minimising future devastation?

Yuin Country, the Aboriginal land where this story was written, stretches along the south coast of New South Wales in Australia to the border with Victoria. It’s a landscape known for its untouched coastline, home to beaches that are thought to have some of the whitest sand on Earth. It is also country that this time last year was devastated by bushfires, which burned 5.4m hectares of land and destroyed 2,439 homes in the state. You likely saw it in the news; seaside villages turned red, then black, overnight.

While Covid-19 has pushed the fires from the front page, communities on the frontline haven’t forgotten. With summer returning to the southern hemisphere, the threat of fire season is back on people’s minds. Already, the public awareness announcements have started on the radio and online. ‘What is your bushfire survival plan?’ ‘Are you prepared?’

One organisation is turning to an ancient but too-long-ignored potential solution: indigenous fire practices, based on millennia-old knowledge of the land. Firesticks Alliance is a network aiming to revive indigenous land management wisdom and techniques. Before colonisation, Indigenous Australians used fire not only to control the buildup of leaf litter and other fuel, but also to maintain ecosystems and promote healthy growth.

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“When we talk about implementing indigenous fire knowledge, we’re talking about managing the land to restore landscapes and to improve the flora and fauna. It’s about the water quality, the animals and putting food on the landscapes,” says Victor Steffensen, lead fire practitioner at Firesticks.

According to Steffensen, cultural burning is very different to western ideas of hazard reduction, which applies fire to the landscape to manage the buildup of fuel. When these hazard reduction burns are too hot, they can destroy local habitats rather than help them heal. Areas that are managed in this way have been known to change over time, becoming unrecognisable because the balance in the local ecosystem had been removed by the wrong application of fire.

Indigenous fire management, however, uses a low-intensity process called a ‘cool burn’, which protects the landscape. It restores habitats and helps food grow, with a focus on burning to produce native grasses. It uses a complex and sophisticated knowledge system that involves reading the landscape and changing seasons carefully to understand when to apply fire to country. The right timing is crucial; burning at the wrong time could mean up to six months before animals can find food again.

Walking with a cool fire, which is an indigenous fire management practice, is Yuin man Jacob Morris.

Walking with a cool fire, which is an indigenous fire management practice, is Yuin man Jacob Morris.

“The good fires, they’re nurturing and it’s all about putting love in the landscape and spending more time to burn the right way. And when we do that, we look after the land better. The land has a better health and better resilience and it becomes fruitful,” Steffensen says.

It’s also about knowing where fire shouldn’t go. In his recently published book, Fire Country, Steffensen explains the difference between wet rainforest ecosystems and rainforest where the soil is dry and sandy. In one area of dry rainforest where no fire regime has been applied for years, the sandy soil was covered with a layer of dry leaves that held back the grasses and small plants that used to grow. Without the regrowth, formerly plentiful rainforest wallabies and tree kangaroos have disappeared from the area.

Steffensen is working with many indigenous and non-indigenous communities to restore the landscape and make it more resilient to the impacts of bushfires through cultural burning practices. “All of our areas that we managed with fire right up to two years beforehand, didn’t get burned from the 2019 wildfires,” he says. “The fires just went out. These were just smallscale demonstrations, but if we were to do largescale burning and look after country the right way, then we would have a lot more examples to show how much better off we’d be.”

The good fires, they’re nurturing it’s all about putting love in the landscape

Dr Peta Standley worked with Steffensen along with Dr Musgrave and Dr George, elders of the Kuku Thaypan clan from Cape York in Queensland. Together, they have developed a research project to demonstrate this wealth of indigenous knowledge, with cultural burning a critical part of the work.

She says the wildfires of last summer have helped to increase awareness of indigenous communities’ knowledge of the land. “The general public is now starting to understand that there is a significant body of knowledge within First Nations Australia,” she says.

According to Dr Standley, there has been a push from Indigenous Australians for a number of years to increase cultural burning practices. As they become more mainstream, she says, it’s critical that indigenous people lead the way when it comes to research and implementation.

Victor Steffensen speaking at the National Firesticks conference

Victor Steffensen speaking at the National Firesticks conference. Image: Sarah Tedder

“Indigenous people really need to be leading in this space. There are a lot of misconceptions,” she says, “with people saying, ‘Just teach us and we’ll go and do it’, rather than empowering indigenous people to be leading and demonstrating the knowledge in its entirety, which is very much connected to cultural practice.”

She hopes to see indigenous knowledge recognised as a science in its own right, rather than compared to or adapted by western sciences.

Steffensen, meanwhile, is eager to get on with the work at hand – training the next generation of indigenous fire practitioners. Through Firesticks Alliance, he is training and supporting indigenous cultural mentors and practitioners already working in communities across Australia, helping to improve access to land and facilitating better collaboration with government agencies, such as the national parks.

The indigenous knowledge of this country is crucial for our future

But, he says, more support is required to grow the capacity and create a national network of skilled practitioners across Australia. “The biggest challenge is people and getting the support from our government. It’s going to cost money to create jobs and to give people the skills they need to look after land the right way,” he explains.

It’s a small investment, however, when compared to the billions of dollars spent on wildfire recovery. “The biggest challenge is [taking the opportunity to start] positive projects that invest in our nation moving forward, environmentally and socially. But it’s hard when the nation is built on fear of fire and the firefighting industry is the only way that western people see it,” says Steffensen.

Australian bushfires

A South Australia APY ranger walks through the smoke in Yuin Country. Image: Sarah Tedder

Firesticks Alliance is seeking funding and support to progress a nationally recognised, culturally accredited mentoring and training programme. This will build a network of professional cultural fire practitioners to enable indigenous communities to apply their knowledge and skills in cultural fire, contemporary fire management and emergency response.

The sudden interest in cultural burning from private land owners in Australia had put pressure on Firesticks to keep up with demand, and Steffensen is hopeful change is coming for all Australians.

“I really hope that people in this country start working together, and know that the indigenous knowledge of this country is crucial for our future. The sooner people realise that it benefits everyone, the better. We really don’t have any more time left, and it’s all about making a change now. We need to get on with it,” says Steffensen.

Main image: A South Australia APY ranger in Yuin Country. Sarah Tedder

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