10 February 2020

Traditional cool burns could save our bushland, says Koori community

| Elka Wood
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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.”

To donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/bega-lalc-cultural-burning-program.

For more information, visit Firesticks Alliance.

Original Article published by Elka Wood on About Regional.

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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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Australia#Early_Indigenous_prehistory


“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.

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.

HiddenDragon9:04 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.

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.

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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