Fire Country: Indigenous Fire Management

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Dr George Musgrave and Dr Tommy George holding a fire torch. Photo by Firesticks

‘I will never forget the day that Poppy lit the first fire on country in front of me… “I’m gonna light the grass now, like the old people used to do,” Poppy said loudly and proudly.

He walked over to the stringybark country and ripped off a long piece of bark from the closest tree… He teased one end of the long piece of bark, lit it up and then walked through the boxwood patch in a repetitive, figure eight type movement… I watched him dancing through the flames like some kind of fire spirit… Soon there was nothing but fire in front of me, but it was only seconds before it started to calm down. Then he reappeared in the middle of the fire, walking over the flames with his bare feet, giving me the biggest smile.’

Over decades we have heard about the many massive wildfires in southern parts of Australia. I remember a few occasions of sitting with Elders, watching bushfire reports on the news. The old people would watch TV, feeling really sorry for the people and the country.

‘They need to believe us, do like we do,’ Poppy would say. ‘We need to go there to show them how to do.’ The first site down south they took me to was a large, gum-tree forest. My first impressions were that it didn’t look too healthy. The poor country had suffered a very hot wildfire almost 20 years ago, before I was there.

As I walked into the country, I noticed that it was the same as our gum-tree country, but different. Even the soil was the same colour to home. But I was shocked to see that the gumtree country I was standing in didn’t have any grass, herbs or small plants around it – none at all. It only had a very thin layer of leaves on the ground. There were some little native shoots among mainly weeds here and there, but otherwise not much at all.

I told the people there my observations and it seemed to make sense to them. They agreed, because they were looking for certain plant species that they knew culturally about but couldn’t find anywhere.

I told old people back home about not seeing nor hearing animals, and how the trees were stunted and burnt. Poppy responded simply by saying: ‘Them old people from before, if they see the country like that, they wouldn’t just leave it, they will fix ’em up again. Burn them a little bit and burn ’em again, till he come right then.’

After that I started to think a lot more about being able to fix sick country like the one I had seen. After seeing that country, I was confident the right fires could heal that kind of land.

Healing Damaged Country

There is not one answer to applying healing techniques, using fire, across all of the conditions of damaged country. One application might work well for one particular ecosystem, while results are not as positive for others.

Applying fire to an unbalanced system can change its application each season until it becomes healthy. The fire application will shift as the country improves, which is why adaptation of fire techniques is the key to effective fire management. When the country has different conditions of health, you need to be able to apply fire in different ways to activate the country the best way possible.

You have to be on country, reading each particular place in person. Sharing indicators of Aboriginal fire knowledge gained through lived experiences is the only way I can explain this.

Reading The Land

Firstly, it is important to know what country should look like and what kinds of plants and animals are meant to be living there. That is where the knowledge of bush foods and medicines is extremely important – knowing which plants and animals should be there, and the indicators to bring them back.

Some country will take a long time to heal and some will return good outcomes from the very first burn. A quick turnaround can be one to five years, whereas others will take decades or more to heal. This excludes bringing back the oldgrowth forest and many rare animal species, of course. For long-term indicators of success to come back, we need to start making the short-term indicators of health.

When some country is sick, fire needs to be applied more regularly in some cases, unless it is a no-fire country. Firedependent country may need frequent burning on different levels, to help it get back to health. If a country is full of invasive weeds and has very few trees, then it may need fire every season until it gets to the point of good health.

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Photo by Alasdair McDonald
country
Photo by Firesticks
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Photo by Firesticks

Clockwise from top left: Victor Steffenson at a workshop in Bega; Dr Tommy George conducting a burn in boxwood country; Dr George Musgrave’s grandson, Lewis Musgrave, conducting the usual burn.

Regular Burning For Healthy Country

In an area in southern Queensland, the Aboriginal rangers had a property handed back to them. Within a couple of years of burning annually, there were native grasses starting to appear everywhere. Weeds like the balloon cotton, that were high in numbers, had dwindled down to just a few. Blackheaded spear grass, native couch and kangaroo grass were populating themselves throughout the soils. There were native herbs of all sorts littered throughout the country and this was the response we were expecting.

At least five years had passed since then. I revisited the site and found that a couple of years of burning had been missed. Busy schedules and constant training programs were leaving no dedicated full-time fire rangers available for this work.

There had also been a hotter burn that occurred three years before, and weeds were riddled throughout the system once again. I was pretty disappointed, but took it as an example to educate the crew. By the end of it we decided to burn, but as expected with so much fuel, it was too hot.

We lost a few young trees, but managed to keep most of them, and it was a good lesson learnt about the consequences of not following up on the frequent burns. It is another example of why we need Indigenous fire managers full-time on country, always nurturing the land. If we leave the land to rebuild fuel over many years, the next careless application of fire could set the land back dramatically.

Protect The Trees And Attract Water

We must protect all our trees and allow them to re-shoot and mature as old growth forest again. When country has been cleared of trees, the land dries out. Protecting the trees can also assist in drought times for many of the plants and animals. Trees are also important to attract water, including rain.

It may not be proven in western science, but it is something I know is valid through traditional knowledge. The trees are connected to the sky and we must not think otherwise, as they sing for rain like many animals, plants and cultural songs do. I have seen times in cleared land areas where the clouds were only raining on all of the patches of small stands of forest left.

Fire is an important tool to grow many trees back on the land and activate the seeds laying waiting in the soil. When fire is applied over land the right way, the parent trees can start shooting out new growth. The good thing about growing trees with fire is that the right trees pop up in the right country. The other advantage is that you don’t have to water the trees, as they will look after themselves.

I am not against the endless efforts of tree-planting, as it is great to see people plant rainforest corridors and reestablishing ecosystems. But I think in fire-prone country we can improve the rehabilitation process by activating the land. In some cases the land has been farmed and tilled so much that we may need to grow trees by hand. I have seen a good Aboriginal friend of mine doing that on a 100-year-old sheep grazing property in Western Australia.

Urgent Re-Set Needed

It is now time to start educating our massive, disconnected population to change their ways; especially given that critical environmental disasters are starting to occur. How do we get people to shift their habits and create change that is going to lead us to the solutions we need? It’s like, we need to reset and decolonise our society to make us in tune with our Mother and each other.

No doubt there will be values to adopt from all Indigenous knowledge systems, which can be joined together with western influence to help guide us along on a safer road. If this is going to happen, then it might pay to go back a few steps to regain what was lost in the past. To get people on the same page and demonstrating the same respect and understanding of the adaptation needed ahead. So far, based my own experiences, it does seem possible, but what a hell of a mess we need to start working through.

Victor Steffensen is descended from the Tagalaka people in North Queensland, and is co-founder of National Indigenous Fire Workshops. Find out more at www.firesticks.org.au

This is an edited extract from Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen (Hardie Grant Travel 2020). Copyright: Victor Steffensen. RRP $29.99. Available now in print and as an e-book.

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