Traditional fire management conducted in Bega Valley, Eurobodalla — hardest-hit by last season’s bushfires

27 September 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Les Simon watches in satisfaction as clumps of coastal tussock burn on a windswept headland at Meringo on the New South Wales Far South Coast.

The Walbanga elder says cultural burning is an important traditional practice that rejuvenates the environment but traditional fire management has not occurred in the region since colonisation.

“This land hasn’t been looked after for 250 years,” Mr Simon said.

“It hasn’t had a proper cultural burn — this is the first one that I know of around Bingi.”

He said the area had important cultural meaning for the land’s traditional owners.

“Bingi to us means ‘full belly’, this is where we used to come to get a feed — we’d burn the land so the animals would be here when we came back,” Mr Simon said.

Preserving vegetation that remains

In the Eurobodalla region, fires burned for more than 100 days during the last fire season.

For hundreds of kilometres to the north, south and west of the headland at Meringo, scorched earth and blackened trees trace the devastation of the fires.

Over 90 per cent of the region’s state forests and national parks were impacted and more than 500 homes were destroyed.

When embers brought the fire to the boundary of Julie Taylor Mills’ 16-hectare property, she spent the afternoon and evening firefighting with her neighbours.

Now, she is worried that the trauma of last season’s deathly fires has led many in the community to see native trees and vegetation as a threat.

“Most of our property, all of the trees on it, are regarded as ecologically endangered communities,” Ms Taylor Mills said.

“We have coastal redgum forest, mahogany, blackbutt, woollybutt, and one of the most extensive areas of native grasslands in the Eurobodalla shire.

Cultural burns as fire management tool

For the past six years, Andrew White led the Batemans Bay Local Aboriginal Land Council cultural burn crew.

The crew have used traditional fire management to regenerate land owned by the land council west of Batemans Bay, and documented the return of biodiversity and vulnerable species after the burns.

Their painstaking work was all but obliterated by the bushfires that tore through the landscape over summer, but the successive years of traditional burns did prevent the bushfire from reaching the canopy — as it did in most of the surrounding forest.

Their work on Julie Taylor Mills’s property was the first cultural burn they have conducted for a private, non-Indigenous landholder.

Owen Carriage is one of the founders of South Coast Aboriginal Elders, a not-for-profit association that has made links with private landholders to extend the practice of traditional fire management by professional Indigenous crews under the guidance of respected Elders.

“Our cultural knowledge, 60,000 years of it, is designed to look after the land,” Mr Carriage said.

“It’s reading Mother Nature, understanding the environment, understanding the animals that live in that area, understanding all aspects of the area that you’re burning.

Mr White said much of the coastal areas of the Far South Coast held cultural meaning for traditional owners.

“A lot of these headland areas, and the coastal areas, are really significant to the mobs up and down the coast,” he said.

Limited access to funding

The Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council cultural burn crew, 140 kilometres to the south, spent the winter months preparing and conducting burns on bushland untouched by last season’s bushfires at Wallagoot and Mirador.

Like the Eurobodalla region, the Bega Valley region was heavily impacted in the bushfires, with 365,000ha of land burned and close to 500 homes destroyed.

The land council is one of the biggest private landholders in the Bega Valley, with title to 1,800ha of former Crown land claimed through the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Much of their land is adjacent to coastal townships, with residents increasingly nervous about the fire risk at their doorstep.

This year’s burns were largely funded through private donations after a surge in interest in cultural burning after the bushfires, with major support from WWF-Australia.

The crew’s traditional burns have been proven to protect the land from bushfires, but without secure, long-term funding, the capacity to maintain and scale-up their traditional fire regime is limited.

Calls for government investment

In its submission to the Federal Government’s bushfire royal commission, the Indigenous-led cultural burning network Firesticks Alliance called on the Federal Government to commit to an annual investment of at least $25 million to foster and grow the practice of cultural burning by traditional custodians and recognised cultural fire practitioners.

By 2023, the alliance aims to have established over 100 highly experienced Indigenous fire practitioners across at least 20 regional hubs.

An Indigenous Training and Mentoring Program would be run from the regional centres and would be Indigenous-led, culturally accredited and nationally recognised, and would also respect appropriate cultural protocols and Indigenous cultural intellectual property.

The final report of the independent NSW Bushfire Inquiry included a recommendation that government should make a commitment to pursuing a greater application of Aboriginal land management, including cultural burning.

The findings of the bushfire royal commission are due to be handed down by the end of October.

On Julie Taylor Mills’ property at Meringo, spring rains have fallen on the winter burns and green shoots of a mix of native grasses have appeared across the landscape.

“Country is not just what we’re standing on, it’s what’s around us,” cultural burn crew leader Andrew White said.

“That spiritual connection that connects us all together, be it animals or plants, or us.

Key points:

  • Two-thirds of the Bega Valley and the Eurobodalla shire were burnt and almost 1,000 homes were destroyed by bushfires last fire season
  • Traditional Indigenous fire management is being revitalised across the NSW Far South Coast
  • Cultural burning networks are calling on the Federal Government to invest in the practice to mitigate the impact of bushfires
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