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Issue #1682      April 29, 2015

Burning traditions are being reignited

Tasmanian Aborigines have been starting fires – “cool” fires – for traditional burning, to nurture and manage land, and lessen the threat and intensity of destructive wild fires. Over the past few weeks they have burnt patches of returned Aboriginal land in southern Tasmania, under the guidance of Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen, a Tagalaka man from north Queensland’s Gulf country.

Tasmanian Elder Clyde Mansell (front) with the pakana rangers – Aboriginal land managers and Aboriginal Parks and Wildlife rangers from across Tasmania, and Victor Steffensen (right), get amongst a cool burn at Risdon Cove, near Hobart.

Mr Steffensen is confident that had traditional burning been allowed to continue after invasion, ferocious wild fires, such as the one that devastated Dunalley in Tasmania in January 2013, would not happen. “People don’t know what fire means in this country. They have one concept of fire – destruction – and they think that is it,” he said. “Traditional burning looks after country and revives country.

“There is only one fire for country, and that’s the right fire, and that’s the fire that belongs to that country. It comes from what the land tells us.”

With climate change, and hotter and later seasons, Mr Steffensen says it is essential to stopping the destruction and immense carbon releases of massive wild fires.

He names bureaucratic red tape, agriculture and single-minded scientific research as the biggest obstacles.

And he’s out to tackle the problem.

Following a traditional burning workshop last year in Queensland, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania invited Mr Steffensen to Tasmania to help restart traditional burning.

Unlike fuel reduction burns conducted by government authorities, cool burns are only lit in optimum conditions, targeting specific plants and small areas creating conditions for fire reliant native species to flourish, reducing the fuel load, preserving the habitat for wildlife and enabling easier movement through country.

One of the Tasmanian men involved in the recent burns explained how he watched grass burn around a small tree, preserving it and providing shelter for a spider as it ran up its trunk. He said he would need to “unlearn” what he had been taught by a government agency he had conducted fuel reduction burns for, where everything was “torched”.

While species and landscapes vary across Australia, Mr Steffensen said the same principles – understanding fire, reading the land and knowing it intimately – can be applied everywhere.

“The fire managers in the old ways were very clever people, a very important role, and they knew all the animals, all the different ecosystems on their country, where all the animals bred, when the right time to burn was and to create those mosaic patterns to create different burning styles for different burning types,” he said.

“Fire management in Australia is really fractured. Indigenous burning has been lost in present-day management, but not in the sense of knowledge.”

Mr Steffensen advocates Indigenous people leading the way, implementing community controlled projects and engaging local authorities. “Get out there and start doing it. The more we sit around, the more vulnerable our knowledge, our country and future becomes,” he said.

“We need to exercise our knowledge, otherwise it’s going to get ripped off.”

Mr Steffensen began recording traditional knowledge with Aboriginal Elders when he was an Indigenous ranger in Cape York 20 years ago, much of it concerning traditional burning.

“It is Indigenous knowledge and it should be valued as Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous people should be leading the process,” he said. It annoys Mr Steffensen that scientists write “single-minded papers to big note themselves, running away with Indigenous knowledge and in other cases ignoring it.

“They take away the opportunity for Indigenous people to be counted,” he said. “It’s medicine to heal, old people like to be listened to.”

In the recent years Mr Steffensen has visited at least 50 communities around the country, influencing thousands of people to reignite traditional burning practices.

Like the rest of Australia, traditional burning practices halted in Tasmania when Aborigines were removed from their country. “We didn’t lose it; the practice stopped,” explained Tasmanian Aboriginal Elder Clyde Mansell, who brought together a team dubbed the pakana rangers for the recent burns.

Mr Mansell can recall cool burns that continued long after invasion.

“Particularly on the islands I can remember when the old man used to go mutton birding and burn the mutton bird rookeries in the June-July period,” he said.

“The same window of opportunity that we’re talking about now, and I know they used similar practices of spotting the fires, rather than one big front, and at night they would put out the embers.

“The government, through their legislation, controlled the activity and it couldn’t be done. The mutton bird islands were owned by the government and they made the rules.

“Now the mutton bird islands have been returned and as a follow on from what’s been happening with Victor (Mr Steffensen) this will be reintroduced.

“In the next few years we will start burning the islands in the proper way. It’s all about passing on community knowledge, the people up in Cape York are passing knowledge onto people all around the country.”

Mr Mansell is looking forward to the next big rain to see plant regrowth and gauge the results of the recent burns.

The group was also encouraged by the interest of Tasmania Fire Service officials who visited some of the burning locations upon invitation.

The seventh annual traditional burning workshop will be held in Mary Valley on Kuku-Thaypan country Cape York from June 13 to 17. More information

Koori Mail

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