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Workshop participants being welcomed to Cape York with a traditional smoking ceremony.

Cape York fire knowledge – reconnecting tradition

The Country Fire Authority of Victoria (CFA), through the CFA Koori Inclusion Action Plan 2014-2019 is committed to meet 20 key actions. Action 12 states “CFA will work collaboratively with Koori communities to: share vegetation management knowledge, increase awareness of cultural burning traditions and koori community engagement through vegetation management activities such as planned burning; and better inform and increase the shared understanding of caring for country”.

To help achieve this goal and develop an effective understanding of traditional burning techniques, CFA Vegetation Management Officer and Euroa Brigade volunteer Phil Hawkey and Eildon Brigade volunteer Len Timmins travelled to Far North Queensland to participate in a Traditional Burning Knowledge workshop at Cape York. This trip was funded from the Emergency Services Foundation scholarship program in July 2016. This was the eighth annual Cape York Indigenous Fire Knowledge Workshop hosted by the Jabalbina Aboriginal Corporation in conjunction with Mulong Productions and Jabalbina Rangers and Cape York Natural Resource Management.

Located near the community of Wujal Wujal above Cape Tribulation Queensland, the workshop hosted 130 indigenous and non-indigenous participants from across Australia. The participants witnessed fire methodologies developed specifically for each landscape and put into practice based on a sound understanding of the local flora and fauna and ecological characteristics of the land.

The five day onsite Indigenous Fire Knowledge workshops have been conducted in various locations throughout Cape York for the past eight years sharing knowledge of fire management continuously handed down from elder to elder for many thousands of years. This knowledge sharing empowers traditional owners to reconnect with country, to practice the traditional ways and allows non-traditional Australians an opportunity to learn and understand the methodology of Indigenous Fire Knowledge and culture.

Low intensity traditional fire in the Cape York landscape.

Low intensity traditional fire in the Cape York landscape.

Traditional Fire Knowledge practitioner Victor Steffenson and Jabalbina Rangers took the group to an area south west of Wujal Wujal to burn grassy woodland surrounded by rainforest. The “knowing” of country (understanding the vegetation, the soil, the moisture and the purpose) enabled the burn to be contained in this grassy woodland without the use of mineral earth control lines or wetted breaks. Using natural features such as damp gullies, existing tracks and wetter forest, the burn was confined to the defined area.

Soil moisture plays an important role in the decision to burn and moisture should be found at 30 centimetres below the surface. If the soil is too dry, the burn will scorch the earth and damage the plants and ecosystems of the forest. Scorch height is also very important and the protection of the canopy from scorch paramount to prevent the loss or damage to tree canopy. The fire should be of a low intensity that allows it to “trickle through the landscape like water” (Victor Steffenson).

The fire is not lit on an edge of the burn site instead it is lit in the middle with a single point of ignition. This allows the fire to develop slowly and spread from this one point. This in turn allows creatures in the landscape time to become alerted to the fire and relocate to a safer area away from the fire. The safety of these creatures contributes to maintaining the continuous cycle of balance of life in the vegetation, with all creatures forming part of that life cycle.

Colour of smoke is also important with white smoke being the preferred outcome. Dark or black smoke indicates the fire is too hot and is damaging the flora.

As the fire completed its journey in the forest floor it was pleasing to see course woody debris still unburnt on the ground. No trees were ignited and the fire essentially went out when it reached the defined perimeters of the burn site as predicted by the Traditional Owners.

The use of fire to heal country is common practice and may be used to remove unwanted weed or other infestations. Fire is also being used to restore natural forest following accidental fire occurrences.

Traditional fire knowledge practitioner Victor Steffenson sharing his knowledge with participants.

Traditional fire knowledge practitioner Victor Steffenson sharing his knowledge with participants.

A lightning strike started a bushfire near Wujal Wujal in 2013 caused significant damage to bush. The scorching fire took away the canopy of the forest and exposed the forest floor. The “upside down forest” was the result with bare wooden branches pointing to the sky and abundant Acacia growth overtaking the forest floor.

With the scientific support of the Cape York Natural Resources Network, this site is being “treated” with low intensity fire to remove much of the acacia and allow eucalypts to reseed and grow to restore the canopy. This work can deliver information of value for future decision making about land management.

Measures that facilitate retrospective monitoring include but not limited to establishing transects and photo points to capture change; the measurement of fire scars and documenting regrowth types; and arrangement and monitoring soil moisture depths.

Workshop participants were encouraged by the hosts to reflect on what they observed and learned so that they could share knowledge when they returned to their home.

Workshop participants list the following key observations:

  • Indigenous Fire Knowledge is the intellectual property of Indigenous people. Understand and respect this.
  • Indigenous fire management practices are different. It may mean burning in different times of the year and in different conditions to what is currently being undertaken by non-aboriginal land managers and fire management agencies.
  • Multiple benefits are outcomes from the practice of traditional burning by Traditional Owners. These include social, cultural, economic, environmental, ecological, physical and mental health outcomes for Aboriginal people. Risk management outcomes include fuel reduction which reduces bushfire intensity and impacts.
  • Traditional Owner fire practitioners have an intimate knowledge of the land they apply fire to.
  • Soil moisture is important to ensure the fire does not burn too hot and cause damage to soil structure.
  • As soils change so does vegetation and consideration to this change must be catered for with the application of fire.
  • Where circumstances permit, single point ignition is preferred to allow slow build-up of fire enabling creatures within the vegetation time to move away from the burn.
  • Colour of smoke indicates the intensity of the burn. White smoke is preferred.
  • The tree canopy is sacred and fire should not be allowed to climb into the canopy. This is a fundamental rule to ensure country is cared for. This requires that a fire is kept low in intensity.
  • Natural barriers such as tracks, wet gullies and waterways are used as control lines instead of using mineral earth breaks which can harm plants and soils.
  • Fire frequency can be increased when utilising cooler burns
  • A single species should not dictate the terms of fire being introduced into the landscape. Fire benefits all.

The capacity of Traditional Owners to practice tractional burning on country is a significant factor in cultural wellbeing and identity for Aboriginal people.

In Victoria very little land is owned by Traditional Owners; therefore the opportunity for the Traditional Owners to practice traditional burning is very limited. A partnership approach between Traditional Owner groups, land owners, and fire services could significantly increase these opportunities. The agencies will need a comprehensive understanding of cultural aspects of traditional burning for this to occur, in particular the critical importance for partnerships and initiatives to be led by Aboriginal people.

Fire and land management agencies need an understanding and respect for the cultural as well as the practical aspects of traditional burning. Hands on learning, on country, such as that experienced by the workshop participants, is a powerful way for agencies to grow this capability. Participation by Victorian fire agency staff and volunteer members in the Queensland workshops, on an ongoing basis, is recommended.

A number of land managers and Aboriginal organisations sent their members to the workshop to bring knowledge home where there might be knowledge gaps. Some Aboriginal organisations identify a potential for Aboriginal people to generate income from provision of land management services based on traditional burning practice.

Participating fire and land management agencies wanted to understand how the practice of traditional burning could be used to mitigate bushfire risk or to restore ecosystem resilience.

In the Victorian agency context, incorporation of aspects of knowledge about traditional burning culture and practice into existing bushfire mitigation or planned burning programs would be readily achievable. Agency interventions that enable the practice of traditional burning by traditional owners would directly benefit Aboriginal people.

Participation in the workshop has confirmed that activities based on the knowledge and spirit of traditional burning practice has a significant potential to facilitate cultural exchange between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and well-being outcomes for Aboriginal people. The application of fire, based on traditional practice could also extend the capability of land managers to treat bushfire through applying a wider range of planned burning intensity, cover, and age class (fire mosaic) yielding ecological benefits.

Understanding of the cultural aspects of traditional burning by fire and land management agencies will be vital to successfully reigniting these age old traditions on country, in Victoria. Participation in this workshop has enhanced that understanding immensely, and will be used to inspire and encourage others to get involved.

For more information, go to www.capeyorkfire.com.au

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Phil Hawkey is a Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer with 40 years of service. Phil also works for CFA as a Vegetation Management Officer in North-east Victoria providing technical and practical support to brigades and land managers planning and conducting fuel management treatments.