Traditional cool burns could save our bushland, says Koori community

Elka Wood 10 February 2020 43
Photo: Warren Purnell.

Photo: Warren Purnell.

When I think about it, it makes so much sense.

Indigenous Australians have walked on this land for thousands of years.

How did the owners of this land traverse the thick leaf litter, sharp sticks, piles of fallen trees and stacked logs?

How did they navigate concealed hazards, like a dozing red-belly black snake? How could they see through the thick bush, to find food and medicine, to see where the tribe went?

“The bush was never like it is now,” says Pete Dixon, crew leader at Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council.

The bush is considered sick by Indigenous fire practitioners and, as we’ve recently learnt firsthand, it’s a tinderbox.

Dixon, who says he was disconnected from culture in his youth, has now been working with the Land Council for 10 years, learning how to care for the land with fire from his elders.

His learning has been backed on and off by government funding to the Land Council, which in 2017 provided RFS training to him and eight others and allowed the crew to begin doing cultural burning on land they own.

Photo: Warren Purnell.

Photo: Warren Purnell.

“The first burn is the re-set burn, it’s hard to keep that one cool,” Dixon explains. “You’ll see dark blue smoke and a thick layer of white ash, indicating a hot fire.”

After the initial burn, which whips through potentially decades of built-up organic matter, a mosaic of regular cultural burning can begin in earnest.

A lot of prep work is done first. The crew clears around big trees and logs so they have bare dirt for a metre around them so animals have cool places to hide after the fire.

“Everything we do is something for the environment. Potaroos are endangered but if we could clear up the bush so it’s nice, grassy woodland, they’d come back.”

A good burn is one you can stand right beside, Dixon says.

“After the fire goes through, you should be able to pull back the ash and put your hand right on the soil.”

This is in contrast to stories from residents around Quaama and Cobargo, who said they could feel the heat from the Baja Forest Fire when it was still 20 km away.

Indigenous fire practitioners up and down our coast have been trying to get permission to burn the forests – to clean the forest, fix the forests – for decades and we haven’t listened.

Land Council CEO Glenn Wilcox has been with the Land Council for five years and fighting for funding for his keen fire crew has been constant.

“We’ve been working with the government and had promises of funding which didn’t come to fruition. When you’ve got a trained crew and you don’t have work for them, they’re going to disappear.”

So Wilcox, Dixon and the Land Council team have taken matters into their own hands, launching a public fundraising site to raise funds for training, wages, operating costs and equipment so that 2020 can be the year of the cultural burn on the Far South Coast.

Photo: Warren Purnell.

Pete Dixon on a cultural burn last year. Photo: Warren Purnell.

“A lot of people have said that the burning we did behind Tathra helped when the fire came through,” Dixon says. “With the current fire situation, I think people are ready to hear it now.”

The Land Council has strategic landholdings that adjoin villages and localities in the Bega Valley region including Tathra, Merimbula, Tura Beach, Bega, Wallagoot, Tanja, Bemboka and Turingal.

If they can begin burning these areas this year, it may just save houses and towns next year.

“Because of climate change, the window when we can burn is closing in,” Wilcox says. “So it becomes more important to do it when we can.”

As well as improving ecosystems and potentially saving houses from fire, funding the cultural burn program keeps Dixon and other local Koori community employed doing something they enjoy.

Something important, useful and culturally meaningful.

“Being back on land, it’s a homing feeling, calming, like it’s meant to be,” Dixon says. “Fire is part of our culture, it was always following us. It shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of.”

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For more information, visit Firesticks Alliance.

Original Article published by Elka Wood on About Regional.

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43 Responses to Traditional cool burns could save our bushland, says Koori community
Doug Hearne Doug Hearne 4:14 pm 06 Feb 20

Well I have heard of rubbish ideas but some of the above take. The the cake most of the bushfires around the Canberra south coast regions can get well below zero ./.degrees in the winter months and you try to tell us it is too hot to cool burn you have to taking the P out of us

Paul Irving Paul Irving 12:35 pm 05 Feb 20

Cool burns require cool time. Climate change has limited this. Traditional actions and behaviours need to also acknowledge the change in conditions.

    Nic McNaughton Nic McNaughton 6:03 pm 05 Feb 20

    Paul Irving yep there is define change in conditions to consider... I watched Q & A the other other night and they described cool burns as the type and temperature of the fire they use, not the temperature of the weather, I'm not sure though if I'm understanding it correctly though?

    Paul Irving Paul Irving 6:07 pm 05 Feb 20

    Nic. Both.

Gordon Gullock Gordon Gullock 9:51 am 05 Feb 20

It's too sick for a one solution fix. We need to throw everything at it to fix it and not exclude anything.

Kevin Brown Kevin Brown 6:02 am 05 Feb 20

This spot on

Spiral Spiral 5:40 am 05 Feb 20

While there is undoubtedly wisdom to be gained from traditional land management practices it is not accurate to claim that the indigenous peoples lived here in harmony with nature.
The landscape encountered by the British when they arrived here was not a natural one, but instead one that had been constructed by humans, at great cost to the flora and fauna of this land.

This article:


“The arrival of Australia’s first people affected the continent significantly, and, along with climate change, may have contributed to the extinction of Australia’s megafauna.[22] The practice of firestick farming amongst northern Aborigines to increase the abundance of plants that attracted animals, transformed dry rainforest into savanna.[23] The introduction of the dingo by Aboriginal people around 3,000–4,000 years ago may, along with human hunting, have contributed to the extinction of the thylacine, Tasmanian devil, and Tasmanian native-hen from mainland Australia”

So their practices helped change the country and drive species to extinction.

That should not be used as an excuse to not do anything. It just means we need to realistically and truthfully look at the impact all humans have had on this continent.

Peter McDonald Peter McDonald 10:41 pm 04 Feb 20

Forty years ago, farmers had fire breaks around every paddock, railways burnt off the rail side, and people didn’t grow trees and bushes next to their houses. There are a lot of things we could be doing to protect ourselfs from fire.

chewy14 chewy14 10:14 pm 04 Feb 20

These types of burns take far more resources to conduct than traditional hazard reduction burns. How are you possibly going to afford to do it on the scale necessary to reduce the impacts of bushfires like we’ve seen this year? Who’s going to pay for it?

Also interesting that existing practioners aren’t talking about this as a “skill” that can be passed on en masse to the wider firefighting community but rather that it’s a cultural practice for Indigenous people to conduct.

Convenient (and whiffy) no matter how effective it might be on a small scale.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 9:04 pm 04 Feb 20

“Indigenous fire practitioners up and down our coast have been trying to get permission to burn the forests – to clean the forest, fix the forests – for decades and we haven’t listened.”

Amongst (many) other things, I hope the proposed Royal Commission will look very closely at the reasons for this.

Spiral Spiral 9:04 pm 04 Feb 20

Certainly all solutions should be investigated. It would be stupid to ignore traditional knowledge.

Rigorous science backed trials to with controls should be conducted to determine the optimal strategy.

It is possible the situation may be more complex than it was centuries ago. The introduction of rabbits has had a significant affect on the flora of this this continent and may have changed the distribution of plants in our forests.

Daniel Evans Daniel Evans 8:19 pm 04 Feb 20

So I just seen one article from the RiotACT showing farmer, fireies and indigenous elders protesting about climate change now your saying that they want to contribute greatly to global co2 by burning the Bush more often, RIGHTIO

Daniel J. Fitzpatrick Daniel J. Fitzpatrick 6:26 pm 04 Feb 20

Those from around brogo and quaama that are familiar with local elders would know uncle max. I have sat with uncle max in circle 7 years ago at the upper brogo river and listened to him say, “nothing gunna save this country if a fire comes, it’s too hot these days country isn’t how it’s supposed to be” I love the idea of cultural burning but man there is so much more to be done.

Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 5:37 pm 04 Feb 20

200 years of government to blame

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:32 pm 04 Feb 20

    200 years of technological advancement- including Facebook, the device you are typing on, and the very clothes you wear. But yep... blaming government is easy. Every single nation on this planet has been forced to evolve in one way or another. Why should Australia be any different? I'm just thankful it was the English and not any of the other world powers of the time that came here. It would be a very different place.

    Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 7:37 pm 04 Feb 20

    i actually agree with you

    Saying differently will get me slammed

    The current government didn’t cause climate change

    The world has had many climate changes

    The current government is just getting the blame

    Multiple prime ministers did nothing either. Did they???

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:54 pm 04 Feb 20

    Jane Kennedy no one is "slamming" you. But you're the one that referenced "200 years" in your comment, insinuating that the Australian Government is the one responsible for all this. I think all the world governments past and present have a lot to answer for. THEY are the ones that have allowed cataclysmic climate change to become a reality in our lifetimes. But it's THIS Government that refuses to do anything to change that flow, yet they have been the ones in power for the last decade (when climate change has well and truly become the front and center issue). So yes.... I do blame the current Government, because they've been the ones with the most evidence to warrant change but haven't.

    Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 10:43 pm 04 Feb 20

    someone needs to find the answer

    Blaming governments doesn’t solve it

    It’s just placing blame

    Every government in the world is to blame

    We do not sit under a glass dome

    We are affected by what the world is doing to the planet

Craig Elliott Craig Elliott 5:36 pm 04 Feb 20

Throw them the keys to a small pilot local Government area....have someone review its success that is appropriately qualified and if it's good.....hire more of them and expand the program...all in a controlled manner. Makes sense to me.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:26 pm 04 Feb 20

    Very logical. Prove their management theories, and if successful learn from them and implement them.

    Dot Willcoxson Dot Willcoxson 7:51 pm 04 Feb 20

    Craig Elliott they could try out the Scott Nature Reserve At Mulloon.

    Jack Hearps Jack Hearps 10:34 pm 04 Feb 20

    Craig Elliott ...them?

    Peter McDonald Peter McDonald 10:35 pm 04 Feb 20

    Craig Elliott that would take decades. Just do it now.

    Jim Jim Jim Jim 8:27 am 05 Feb 20

    Craig Elliott because Indigenous peoples haven’t been managing the bush for nearly 100,000 years...and the current mob have done such a great job as we’ve seen.

Jay Kay Jay Kay 4:45 pm 04 Feb 20

Whilst I'm inclined to lean towards this being native mysticism at its finest, I'm all for testing it at scale if possible.

Chris Cross Chris Cross 4:01 pm 04 Feb 20

The climate has changed over the last 200 years and continues to change. Whilst I appreciate that some land management occurred before white settlement, the solution isn't as simple "letting the traditional owners burn everything". If flying air tankers, advanced meteorology with satellite imagery, and thousands of fire fighters can't control these fires, then no amount of traditional tactics will. In 200 years our country has become bone dry and a lot hotter. What worked then won't work now. I don't know what the answer is- but burning throughout the year isn't an attractive option for our health either.

    Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 4:30 pm 04 Feb 20

    Chris Cross we haven’t been any good at it at all- the owners of the land need to be in charge.

    Graham Wylie Graham Wylie 4:35 pm 04 Feb 20

    Chris Cross. You didn't read the article did you.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:14 pm 04 Feb 20

    Milenko-Slavenka Jovanovic yes... we could all stoop to calling each other names instead of logical argument, but some of us aren't capable of that. I hope your post gave you the satisfaction you wanted.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:22 pm 04 Feb 20

    Graham Wylie oh I did. Twice. And even then I didn't see any strategy on HOW such burns accomplish the set goal of reducing fire load. What happens when you cool burn is that MORE growth is encouraged. The bush loves cool burns, it invigorates it. The fallacy that aboriginal people know more about the behaviour and management of fire is an insult to the thousands of people live and breathe fire management every day of their working lives. More funding and resources need to be given to those who are currently fighting these fires. There's nothing secret about fire management that the traditional owners know that professional fire services don't.

    Benny Turnbull Benny Turnbull 10:25 pm 04 Feb 20

    the first Sapiens in Australia as elsewhere clear-burned the landscape terraforming vast areas from rain Forrest to burn-hungry eucalyptus.

    They wiped out the nations mega fauna in the process but it was still comparatively lush and moist compared to today.

    Then European settlement further clear cut the land for grazing, agriculture, industry and housing etc

    Much of our landscape is not only drying out vegitation, but ground cover and top soil. These fires have been observed burning into the top soil wiping out soil bacteria that forms the basis for for food chains.

    Humans of every type have been contributing to the crisis we face today.

    The vast Forrest’s of the earth maintain cooler air pockets that cause moisture to condense and fall have been drastically reduced.

    So many of our behaviours have lead to this.

    I think it’s well beyond indigenous burning off. It’ll take and every-effort approach to turn this around

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 11:26 pm 04 Feb 20

    Benny Turnbull 100% every word you said!

    Joe Stephens Joe Stephens 1:07 pm 07 Feb 20

    Nathan Lofthouse clearly you have not noticed but things have changed a little in two hundred years!

Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 3:45 pm 04 Feb 20

Let the traditional owners burn and control all fires

But I have a question

Why are they public funding to do it

Didn’t they do this pre 1788

I assume they lit them and put them out without cash???

It’s an honest question not a smart comment from me

Thank you

    Jenni Zimoch Jenni Zimoch 4:15 pm 04 Feb 20

    Because these days you need money to live.

    Do you expect them to work for free?

    Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 4:21 pm 04 Feb 20

    not at all

    Traditionally they did it for nothing

    It’s not about needing money to live

    Are they firemen trained and paid or just regular every day workers

    Who know how to do it

    Jenni Zimoch Jenni Zimoch 4:57 pm 04 Feb 20

    Jane Kennedy does it matter?

    If they're doing work, they should get paid.

    Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy 5:26 pm 04 Feb 20

    Would they fall under volunteer fire fighters through the RFS

    Or trained fire men

    Either way they know best and should be controlling all of this

Graham Wylie Graham Wylie 2:53 pm 04 Feb 20

We have the opportunity to let the traditional owners of the land to take over and do things properly. What is the bet the government does nothing.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:28 pm 04 Feb 20

    No, not at all. Absolutely no need for the traditional owners to take over- what a ridiculous notion. Let them prove in a controlled setting that what they suggest is viable, and then implement that strategy into current practices.

Helen Bastin Mulley Helen Bastin Mulley 12:53 pm 04 Feb 20

This should be done throughout Australia people need to listen and learn more from the indigenous people of this land

Gilavon Gilavon 12:12 pm 04 Feb 20

Perhaps our “leaders” will start taking notice of what the Peter Dixon’s of this world are telling us and act on it. We’re so full of trite ceremony paying respects to the original occupiers of this country, some more practical action wouldn’t be wasted. Val Jeffrey wasn’t shown enough respect either.

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