Protecting cultural sites from bushfire

Protecting cultural sites from bushfire

04 March 2013

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Australia — Lionel Dukakis’ role within the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) is not well known but it is vitally important when it comes to preserving aboriginal cultural heritage sites during bushfires. He is currently trying to save cultural sites in the area affected by the Harrietville Alpine bushfire.

Lionel explains that the biggest risk to these sites is not the fire but those fighting it.

When fire fighting vehicles are brought in to battle fires they usually keep to marked tracks but there is a risk to sites with heavier vehicles like bulldozers.

“The biggest impact to cultural heritage sites is machinery,” he says.

It’s Lionel’s role to give fire fighters coordinates of cultural heritage sites so they can avoid them.

Sites of cultural significance usually have artefacts scattered around the site, such as marked trees.

Over the years DSE officers, archaeologists and Gunai Kurnai elders have been responsible for marking sites of cultural significance on a map.

The sites, once marked, have a 50 metre buffer zone around them.

Some artefacts can also be protected with flame retardant substances.

If a fire does burn through a cultural site, DSE officers like Lionel and traditional land owners assess the extent of the damage.

“We feed that [information] up to a bushfire recovery team so that we can put something in place to rehabilitate sites if need be,” he says.

Lionel remembers the frustration of working in a logistics role during the 2003 bushfires when there wasn’t anyone with a role to protect cultural heritage sites within the DSE.

“Even though we knew sites where out there, there wasn’t a lot of things done about it, but over the years we’re getting better as a department at protecting those,” he says.

Lionel is one of the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria but has lived all of this life in Gunai Kurnai country in Gippsland.

“I have the utmost respect for the culture and I’m very privileged and honoured to preserve it for future generations of the Gunai Kurnai people,” he says.

Lionel says after the Harrietville Alpine bushfire is contained DSE teams will go in to assess whether any cultural heritage sites have been damaged by the bushfire but so far he hasn’t heard of any damage to sites.


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