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How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia

May 11, 2020

Fire CountryVictor Steffensen was on country with Elder George Musgrove (Poppy). They were standing in a small community of boxwood trees with thick, dry grass. ‘I’m gonna light the grass now,’ said Poppy, ‘like the old people used to do.’

Poppy ripped a long piece of bark off a nearby stringybark tree, lit it and “walked through the boxwood patch in a repetitive, figure eight type movement. He was almost skipping as he dragged the bark along, making the fire follow him around. … I watched the fire go higher and the smoke fill the space around him until I couldn’t see him anymore. There was nothing but fire in front of me, but it was only seconds before it started to calm down. Then he reappeared in the middle of the fire, walking over the flames with his bare feet … the fire soon trickled out, burning a perfect circle that outlined that little patch of boxwood country.”

This was the beginning of Steffensen’s education in Indigenous fire management.

Cultural burns are cool, gentle burns, done at the right time for that type of country, reducing fuel while preserving the ecosystem and ensuring there is a habitat for every species. The fire must be lit “in the right spot so that the fire introduces itself to the land slowly.”

Cultural burns require a deep knowledge of vegetation types and the ability to read the country and let it tell you what it needs. Different types of country will be burnt at different times of the year. Earlier burns provide fire breaks for later burns. Annual burns are needed, otherwise the fuel builds up and the fire gets too hot.

The Western approach is based on a fear of fire and trying to suppress it from the land altogether by fire bans, land clearing and hazard reduction or back burning. There is now plenty of evidence that these methods are counterproductive and result in destructive bushfires. “The country is suffering because no one knows how to look after the fire anymore.”

Steffensen’s teachers were Poppy and another Elder, Tommy George (TG). Poppy and TG were awarded honorary doctorates by James Cook University in recognition of their deep knowledge.

Steffensen is a descendant of the Tagalaka people. He  is the co-founder of the National Indigenous Fire Workshops which have been run throughout the Eastern states. He has also connected with First Nations people in California, Canada and the Sami people of Northern Finland.

Fire Country is hard to put down. What drove me to keep reading was Steffensen’s passion and his dream to help Australians live better and safer lives through the wisdom of the Elders. Their knowledge can be a key part of our response to climate change.

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