Aboriginal rangers key to reining in massive fires burning ‘out of sight’ across the country every year

Aboriginal rangers key to reining in massive fires burning ‘out of sight’ across the country every year

23 July 2018

Published by http://www.abc.net.au/

AUSTRALIA – In the heart of Western Australia, far from the big cities or even the smaller towns, massive wildfires burn across the deserts in the warmer months.

The fires — in some cases the size of Sydney — were often caused by a pattern of lightning strikes in the spring and summer, and have long been part of the natural landscape of remote Australia.

While a bushfire near Perth or Melbourne might cause millions of dollars in property damage, those in more sparsely populated parts of the country can go almost unnoticed.

But Aboriginal rangers and fire management experts have warned that as the fires spread further and burn more ferociously than before, they were increasingly a serious threat to the environment.

The solution, they say, is a revival of traditional methods of fire management used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years before European settlement.

“Fire is special because people, when they burn [the land], plants and animals would come and grow, because the green grass will grow and animals will come,” said Ethan Hansen, an Aboriginal ranger in Tjuntjuntjara in south-east WA.

“It keeps the balance of the land. When the old people used to live there, that’s what they used to do.”

Mr Hansen and his team of rangers at Spinifex Land Management consult with elders in the community to plan where to implement smaller, strategic burns that will act as barriers to larger fires.

The aim is not to attempt to fight the fires directly with water or other retardants — but rather to alter their path and manage their impact.

“That involves a lot of planning, where we sit down with the old people and decide where to burn. It’s all about protecting the country,” Mr Hansen said.

Fighting an uphill battle

But there is a sense among Indigenous rangers and fire management experts of fighting an uphill battle.

“Some of the bushfires we have in central WA and across central Australia for that matter are among the largest bushfires in the world — some get to 3 or 4 million hectares in size, said Neil Burrows from the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife

Dr Burrows, who has long studied the impact and management of wildfires, said large-scale fires were having a devastating impact on biodiversity, particularly in combination with feral predators.

“Most people in the urbanised parts of Australia have no clue that these fires are occurring because they are in remote areas by and large away from population centres — out of sight, out of mind.”

Chris Curnow from Rangelands NRM, a WA land care organisation, said there was a turning point during the 20th century when many Aboriginal people were moved off their traditional lands.

This left areas untended by the traditional techniques which for many thousands of years had maintained balance in the landscape.

“People who roamed the country kept alive that patchwork of fire. That was missing for a [great deal of] time,” he said.

“Certainly when people were forced off country and there’s been less public investment in getting [traditional techniques] back into those areas of the country, we’re seeing much more devastating and long-burning [fires], and just [on a] bigger scale.”

Mr Curnow said the scale and destruction of modern fires throughout desert areas of WA had grown over recent decades, and rangers were now battling to catch up.

“We’ve seen a change in the fire regimes, and now we’re kind of chasing that to try and bring back.

“That’s what the intention is among the groups in the desert who are trying to do [traditional techniques] again.”

“It’s been happening a lot recently in other areas where you can see the whole country is just burnt,” Mr Hansen said.

Aboriginal rangers key

Aboriginal ranger groups from WA, the Northern Territory and South Australia shared fire management expertise at a conference last month at Credo Station near Kalgoorlie.

Craig Sailor, a ranger with the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa ranger program in WA’s Pilbara region, spoke of his pride in the work he does.

“My favourite part is going to look after my grandfather’s country because I love my grandfather, and I live in that area,” Mr Sailor said.

“Once a month I’ll go in the chopper and just press the button. They’re like a little tablet, and drop it down,” he added, referring to his team’s method of using small fire starters.

Earlier this year, the WA Government announced $8.5 million for 13 Aboriginal ranger programs around the state, funding about 85 new jobs and 80 training roles.

According to Dr Burrows, it was an important investment to continue.

He said Aboriginal rangers held the front line in remote fire management across much of the country.

“There are all sorts of really good environmental, cultural, social and biodiversity reasons why we need to try to rein in these really big bushfires, and get back to what traditional owners were doing years ago,” Dr Burrows said.

“There’s no way we can revert back to how it was done in days gone by, but we can still have the same effect in reducing the impact of these big bushfires by combining traditional burning techniques with modern technology.”

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