Aboriginal traditional burning expert hired for key role in growing bushfire challenge

31 May 2020

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

AUSTRALIA – Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and volunteers will be trained on the ancient craft of cultural burning under the project being run by WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).

Aboriginal people have been using fire as a tool for managing the land for countless generations.

But there has been growing mainstream interest in it following the devastating 2019/2020 fire season.

Bushfire Centre of Excellence Chief Superintendent John Tillman said Aboriginal knowledge on the timing and intensity of preventative burns should be harnessed.

“It will be a journey to get there but it’s really about learning and understanding how fire was used pre-European settlement and that connection with the land.”

‘Fantastic step forward’

Wayne Davis, a Kaitij man from the Northern Territory with 40 years of experience as a traditional fire practitioner, is heading up the program.

“We’re all in this together,” Mr Davis said.

“It’s all that knowledge about how the old people a long time ago read the land, understood the land.”

There is no set protocol for traditional fire practices but they generally use smaller, cooler fires that are targeted and frequent to regenerate the landscape and protect native animals and their habitats.

Mr Tillman said Mr Davis was the first full-time traditional fire coordinator to be employed by a state fire authority in Australia.

He said that prior to European settlement, Aboriginal people moved right across the landscape, taking fire with them as they moved and creating a mosaic of burnt areas.

“The easiest analogy I can think of is a patchwork quilt,” Mr Tillman said.

Craig Lapsley, Victoria’s former emergency management commissioner, has called for a national Indigenous burning program following the recent devastating fire season.

He said Western Australia’s recent commitment was a “fantastic step forward”.

“It’s not the answer … I think it’s one of the answers,” he said of traditional burning practices.

“It’s healthy for the landscape to put in cooler burns, it’s respectful to the Indigenous community.

“I think you’ll see every other state and territory is focused on this now.”

One of first projects on Wayne Davis’s to-do list will be to help the Binjareb people, part of the South West’s Noongar community, carry out a cultural burn on bushland in Pinjarra, south of Perth.

He wants to empower more Aboriginal people to manage their land, advocating burning throughout more of the year to keep fuel loads down.

In some urban areas those skills have been lost, but that is not the case in Northern and Central Australia.

The appointment of Wayne Davis to the ranks of DFES has been welcomed by the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) which oversees traditional burning by over 100 rangers in Western Australia’s north.

Two-way learning needed

The KLC’s Tyronne Garstone said until now there had been an ad hoc approach to incorporating cultural fire methods into mainstream fire programs.

“I think it is a really good step,” Mr Garstone said of the new role.

“It can’t be underestimated, the bringing together of traditional knowledge and new Western-style knowledge.

“I don’t think it’s something that is going to have an immediate effect, but I think over the journey we will start to see practices involving traditional owners that will start to manage the landscape in a different way, which will ultimately lead to less fires and better outcomes.

“But don’t get me wrong, I think there is two-way learning that needs to happen.”

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