Indigenous fire management set to scale up in Bega Valley after devastating Black Summer bushfires

12 November 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Last season’s bushfires, the worst in Australia’s recorded history, have led to a surge in interest in how traditional Indigenous fire management can heal and protect the landscape.

In the Bega Valley, where bushfires impacted more than 75 per cent of bushland and forests last spring and summer, the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council welcomed the recognition and support for their cultural burning practice.

“The interest from the broader community, particularly since the bushfires, has increased exponentially,” said Glenn Willcox, CEO of the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council.

The land council was able to secure financial support to continue their successful traditional fire management program on their landholdings near the residential communities of Merimbula and Tura Beach, one of the last areas of coastal bushland untouched by last season’s far south coast wildfires.

The group spent the winter months conducting burns and were documenting the positive impact on vulnerable native species.

They were now working towards expanding the crew to scale up their cultural burning program next year.

“But you’ve got to start small and build from there, so that’s what we’re doing.”

Taking on new recruits

The first step was to organise a nationally accredited Respond to Wildfire course on country at Wallagoot, a qualification required to work in collaboration with other agencies like National Parks and the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Fifteen participants enrolled in the course through the Bega and Eden local Aboriginal land councils.

Veteran firefighters Barry Aitchison and Mick Holton were contracted by Indigenous-owned registered training organisation Walan Miya to deliver the training.

“Any opportunity that I can get to work with Indigenous Australians is good for me because I learn as well as share some of my knowledge,” Mr Holton said.

Bringing knowledge back

Quentin Aldridge saw the devastation of the summer bushfires firsthand when he was involved in bushfire recovery work, clearing properties in communities south of his home in Eden.

He could see the potential of cultural burning to heal the landscape and prevent future wildfires.

“A few generations might have missed it, but now cultural burning is coming back,” Mr Aldridge said.

For Lesley Darcy-Briggs, the training was an important opportunity for more women to be involved in traditional fire management.

“In Indigenous culture we have certain sacred lands where only women can be on,” Ms Darcy-Briggs said.

“So we have to get the women more involved, taking care of our sacred sites as women, and to pass that down to the younger generations.”

Considering cultural sites

In his submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission and the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry, elder Graham Moore called on governments to recognise cultural sites in asset protection planning.

“First is obviously protecting humans, then houses,” Mr Moore said.

“Our sites should be given the same consideration as houses, be held at that same value.”

Across Australia, thousands of Indigenous cultural sites are feared to have been damaged or destroyed in last season’s bushfires — many of them undocumented.

Mr Moore also wanted to see a greater awareness of Indigenous cultural heritage in the way emergencies were managed.

“Fire trails and turnaround bays are normally on ridge lines where many of our sites are. Artefacts and scar trees are put at risk,” he said.

For Julie Green, the recognition of cultural burning by the wider community had been one positive outcome of the tragic bushfires that burnt 5.5 million hectares in NSW in 2019–2020.

“It’s about time that everybody starts coming together and understanding,” Ms Green said.

“It’s something for everyone to learn and appreciate.

“It’s healing to us that we can do something, something good.”

Key points:

  • The Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council began a cultural burning program in 2017
  • Cultural burns helped protect Bega LALC landholdings in the 2018 Tathra bushfire
  • Fifteen participants are in training preparing to expand the cultural burning program
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