When I tuned into the Q&A program that kicked off 2020 with an exploration of what we are calling our Black Summer of catastrophic bushfires, one of the speakers was Victor Steffensen, one of the founders of the Aboriginal Firestick Alliance. Victor’s voice was drowned out by the other members of the panel who were busy exploring their trauma from the bushfires that ravaged the NSW south coast and south into Victoria, seared into our collective memories by the images that led to the evacuation of Mallacoota by navy vessels and the destruction of whole towns like Cobargo.

Yet once all the emotion of lost homes, lost human lives, burnt native animals and lost economic livelihoods in burnt businesses and livestock is set aside, Victor had the most important message of all. Aboriginal people have been using fire to care for country for thousands and thousands of years. Their practice of ‘fire management’ shaped the ecology of Australia. If only we paid attention to this ancient knowledge system and practised it, fire would not be our ‘enemy’ but our friend.To understand what is meant by ‘cultural burning as caring for country’, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia, published by Hardie Grant Travel 2020. At $22 a copy it is probably the most important book you will ever purchase. As Professor Larissa Behrendt, Jumbunna Institute, UTS says: ‘Victor’s work and wisdom is the knowledge our land needs right now. An important reminder of our responsibility to country and the need to respect our Aboriginal knowledge systems, it is essential reading for all Australians.

The summer’s catastrophic bushfires began in Queensland. So dry was the landscape that the fires burnt rainforests. Victor is from Cape York area., a member of the Tagalaka peoples on his mother’s side. In a radio interview in November 2019, Victor warned that the bushfire crisis was sending a clear message to politicians that current land management practices are not working. He called on State and Federal Governments to establish a new workforce dedicated to managing land and fuel loads through the use of traditional ecological knowledge. He pointed out that the dangerous fire conditions across Australia resulted from a build up of fuel loads and decades of mismanagement of land and fire regimes. For Victor and the elders who understand how to care for country, the bottom line is that we Australians need to start looking after the landscape in all its rich diversity.

Victor: “We need a whole other division of people out there looking after the land.”

This means turning away from past practices based on back burning, hazard reduction and heroic crisis bushfire fighting with the focus on protecting assets—property and people.Since the fires, we have a State Funeral for the people who lost their lives in the fires, particularly for the fire fighters, including the two from America. However, while there has been an outpouring of grief for wildlife affected by the fires, particularly for the iconic koalas, we have had no State Funeral for the hundreds of thousands of native animals killed in the fires. We also have a Royal Commission into the fires, but the emphasis is not on cultural burning to care for country. It is on hazard reduction to protect assets, and yet another reason to promote land clearing, a practice that has devastated our soils and ecosystems since the ‘whitefella’ took possession of Australia.

The National Royal Commission

The National Royal Commission into the Black Summer Bushfires, was announced on 20 February 2020 as having an emphasis on relevant powers and coordination across different levels of government and their jurisdictions. The Prime Minister emphasises it was focused on ‘practical measures to make Australians safer amid a changing climate—including hazard reduction as a key focus, drawing attention to a widespread concern that environmental protection measures had prevented enough hazard reduction efforts. This was although this has been disputed by the fire chiefs, pointing to the difficulty of doing back burning in the extremely dry condition that have prevailed throughout 2019.

However, importantly the Commission’s terms of reference did include a reference to consider ‘any ways in which the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters. However no indigenous experts on this were appointed to the Commission. The three commissioners are Air Chief Marshal Mark Donald Binskin (former Australian Defence Force Chief), the Hon. Dr Annabelle Claire Bennett (a former Federal Court Judge), and Professor Andrew Kerr Macintosh (a leading environmental lawyer). The Commission is due to give its recommendations by 31 August 2020.Learning the Laws of Cultural Burning

Victor describes his long journey to learn from the old people about how to use cultural burning to care for country. Here we see the elders central to Victor’s own learning about cultural burning: Dr Musgrave and Dr George, Kuku Thaypan Elders.

They taught him that you have to know how to read the country and learn the knowledge of its ecosystems—the soil, the grasses, the trees and plants and the animals and insects who live in an integrated chain of mutual support across the different seasons. Victor has captured what he learned in his book ‘Fire County: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia’.

Through his workshops at Mulong in Cape York Qld, on cultural burning and the importance of healing the Australian landscape through deep local ecological knowledge and learning (www.mulong.com.au), Victor has been sharing his growing understanding with indigenous people all over Australia who have come to learn how to care for their country by understanding how to work with fire. Victor has also pioneered the use of filming to record stories, cultural practices and traditional knowledge, engaging young people in using these methods that are part of their modern life.

Slowly the network of knowledge and engagement with this way of thinking has been spreading throughout indigenous communities. This finally resulted in the establishment of the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Indigenous Corporation, a collaboration between Victor and Oliver Costello, a Bundjalung man from the NSW north coast, with assistance from University of Technology Sydney.

Victor’s conclusions from the terrible Black Summer fires of 2019-2020, outlined in his book Fire Country are:

My main concern after the horrible (summer fires) is that government will overlook traditional fire knowledge once more, and give their current services open slather to do hazard reductions and land clearing… It is time to put together a whole new national approach that this nation has never seen before. It will take everyone being involved and listening to all the expertise that is positive and helps make it happen (p.212).

The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land, looking after country in all the ways possible, which includes fire as well as other practices. A skilled team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for community. To do that we need to draw on all of our Aboriginal expertise to train people and start upskilling the fire managers of the future… We need to see three-year training courses of learning out on country to graduate our Indigenous fire practitioners (p.213).

What we are facing is among the biggest environmental challenges in modern human history and we need to start dealing with it now… We need to start training the trainers, building the teams, getting people out there on the many different levels. Build from the foundation of Aboriginal knowledge as the practical knowledge base to work from, and adding the Western knowledge to support a stronger solution (p.214).

All that is needed is the resources to match the hard work and community spirit of everyone’s efforts and make it become a reality (p.214).

[vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1583635979932{background-color: #ddcdaf !important;}”]Selected extracts from ‘Fire Country’

Victor’s book is divided into five parts:

Part one: Finding the old people (chapters 1-2)

Part two: The Fire (chapters 3-9)

Part three: The other side (chapters 10-13)

Part four: Sharing the fire knowledge (chapters 14-18)

Part five: Healing country, healing people (chapters 19-24).

I’ve chosen some extracts from Parts two to five, focusing in on particular chapters. My focus is pulling through those insights most needed by non-Aboriginal people like myself, and the people most likely to read this blog—those fighting against a culture of ‘disconnection’ to landscape and one another through the evolution of the western knowledge system (epistemology) that reached its epitome of global influence through the scientific materialism of the industrial revolution that underpinned the colonial expansion of the European powers and their hubris of cultural and racial superiority against other peoples across the world. It has left a legacy of objectification and consumerism that now defines global modern culture and its penetration into all aspects of life through its technologies—powerful, convenient, and addictive.Chapter 3: The fire

The Western fire regimes are based on hazard reduction and they don’t see the layers of cultural and environmental connections that make up Aboriginal fire knowledge, which is based on all elements of nature living in harmony with one another. This misinformation about the difference between cultural burning and hazard reduction or back burning was becoming clearer and clearer every time the old people stopped to talk about fire on country… The old men would comment on how the land was health and clean when they were younger. The country is suffering because no one knows how to look after the fires anymore (p. 22).

But the old men couldn’t do anything about this, because the land was locked up in private property, or crown land, where they had no rights and their voices were not listened to (p.23).Chapter 12. The obstacle of man

One thing I would love to see is for the government to effectively jump in the passenger seat and let us drive for a change. Being in the passenger seat means that they are still in the same car, so we don’t leave them behind. But most of the time we are not even in the car, and they just drive off, leaving us in the dust (p.91).Chapter 13: Science or oppression?

The way Western science communicates knowledge is to separate everything into different categories and names. Separating knowledge is done by breaking down the values to give them their own separate findings. For example, Aboriginal fire knowledge is applied to the landscape to maintain the health of animals and plants. Science takes this aspect of Aboriginal fire knowledge and creates a new category called ‘burning for biodiversity’. . . Some ecologist would come to three or four of our workshops and learn about fire from Aboriginal people, then go off and create their own project called ‘ecological fire’ and sell it differently (p.97).

I’ve always believed that the best way to protect traditional knowledge is for Aboriginal people to apply their knowledge and culture and keep it alive. If Aboriginal people don’t practice their culture, then their knowledge and land becomes more vulnerable (p.96).Chapter 16: Fire and the story

Teaching the fire knowledge in a public workshop was always going to be dangerous in many ways, but we can’t exclude the white fella. We needed them on board too if we are going to put Aboriginal fire knowledge into the mainstream. We need to educate non-Indigenous people on the traditional fire as well, but in a way where Aboriginal people lead the process. Making sure the workshop focused on empowering Indigenous communities to run their own fire programs was key to sharing knowledge the right way (p.133).Chapter 18: For country and spirit

Western ways are usually the reverse of the way Aboriginal people see the world. The old people will tell you what is going to happen before the fire is lit, while the Western way is to research the aftermath.. . even the language is back the front. The English language will say, ‘Get me some water.’ In Awu-Laya language, it’s ‘Gno parn yo’—‘Water you get’. Maybe that is why it is hard for each side to understand each other sometimes (p.139)?Chapter 19: The ‘Praction’

The best way to learn is to live the land and the knowledge as much as possible (p.143).

To me ‘praction’ (a word coined by old man Poppy, one of Victor’s traditional elder teachers) meant applying an action for the wellbeing of people, in a way that is culturally in tune with the natural world… The country is where the knowledge comes from… Applying fire or any other cultural practices to the landscape is done by the country communicating with the custodian. Reading the landscape is a skill where the land is the boss and tells us what to do. Aboriginal people have perfected this technique in synergy with the environment for thousands of year (p.145).Chapter 20: The animals talking

When it comes to the animals, they know the right fire for country. Aboriginal people found the way of applying fire to country that is in sync with the native fauna that live in fire-prone systems (p.154).

Seeing animal behaviours benefiting from the fire is an indicator that the burn is good… Fire cannot be allowed to burn anything and everything. It needs to be balanced in order to benefit all living things and that is what Indigenous people learnt to do. The natural world has evolved to depend on humans to continue the responsibility of regulating fire, which is another connection to reinforce that people are part of the landscape. The animals depend on us to do the right thing… The old people would yell out to the spirits in most places we went to on country. To let them know that we were there, and what we were doing on that place… You must apply the fire respectfully with a proper announcement so everything knows—land, animals and spirit (p.155).Chapter 21: What have they done to the country?

Taking people out of the landscape and effectively locking it up has created the major cause of our environmental disasters… It is sad to say that the conservation laws regulating fire have been a key contributor… Not only is the land oppressed by dead leaves and weeds, but also by the dominant governing system selling off what isn’t theirs… To feel for the country is to feel for your own identity, to know your role on this plant. Indigenous cultures of the world had the respect for country and its absence is clear to see. Look at what they have done to our country (p.170).Chapter 22: Healing people with country

It has been amazing to witness so many non-Indigenous people gain a greater cultural and spiritual experience through the Aboriginal lens… The Western trained mind usually struggles with understanding the logic of the Aboriginal philosophy of country and spirituality. People have been influenced to separate things into boxes for so long that it takes a bit of convincing to see the world in a wholistic, interconnected way (p.179).Chapter 23: Healing country

We are leaving our future children with an accumulating debt of environmental mess. If we are serious about transforming to heal our rivers and oceans, rehabilitate land and revive our animal kingdom, then we must start handing down good knowledge and practice to the future children. That means doing what Aboriginal people have done since the beginning of their time. Handing down knowledge in a way that is accurate, sustainable cultural and is continually practised for generations. This what is going to take if we are going to be serious about healing our planet (p.183).

Healing the environmental problems becomes far more possible if you understand the land through ancient knowledge views (p.184).Chapter 24: Living knowledge

What we are facing is among the biggest environmental challenges in modern human history and we need to start dealing with it now… We need to start training the trainers, building the teams, getting people out there on the many different levels. Build from the foundation of Aboriginal knowledge as the practical knowledge base to work from, and adding the Western knowledge to support a stronger solution (p.214).

All that is needed is the resources to match the hard work and community spirit of everyone’s efforts and make it become a reality (p.214).Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation

Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation is an Indigenous led network and aims to re-invigorate the use of cultural burning by facilitating cultural learning pathways to fire and land management. It is an initiative for Indigenous and non- Indigenous people to look after Country, share their experiences and collectively explore ways to achieve their goals.

Firesticks is an opportunity for people to build on the knowledge they already have on Country and look for ways to make use of new technologies and understandings as a way to support cultural identity and practice. Firesticks is building a community of practice, sharing fire stories and communicating positively about the work that is undertaken and its value to people and place. Mentoring and networking through Firesticks strengthens community and Country. Implementing fire to enhance ecosystem health within culturally connected landscapes improves habitat condition and connectivity. Firesticks ultimately strives to empower Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to work together towards healthy, functional and resilient landscapes.

Firesticks is facilitating training, implementing on-ground works and conducting scientific monitoring to establish a greater understanding of the ecological impact of cultural burning practices. The program aims to work with fire to enhance ecosystem health by improving habitat condition and connectivity within culturally connected landscapes. The ultimate goal of Firesticks is to support cultural learning pathways that enable and empower Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to work collectively towards resilient landscapes.

The Firesticks Alliance believes in a community of practice, which allows knowledge to be shared through our stories and practice.

We want this community to keep growing. We welcome you as an important part of the community to share your values and your stories. Through this sharing, we can all help each other on the empowering journey of cultural burning.

Through a series of workshops Firesticks Alliance has worked to define the values and objectives underlying cultural burning to inform our on ground activities. The responses ranged across the natural, spiritual, economic, educational and social domains and encompass values that are both similar and different from mainstream environmental management. This is to be expected as cultural burning is based on an understanding that a reciprocal arrangement exists between people and Country. This is often summarised in “healthy people healthy Country”. That is, healthy people with knowledge, authority and capacity are required to manage the Country. In return a healthy landscape is required to support the physical, mental and spiritual needs of the people who are the managers. In practice this means Firesticks invests in people, in communication pathways, education and in on ground land management work to create a resilient social and ecological landscape.

The Firesticks Alliance is achieving this through the following processes:

  • AIR – Making Space: Building understanding and recognition; sharing stories and information; connecting communities with each other; driving change.
  • HEAT – Facilitating Action: Delivering on ground planning; training through workshops; managing Country by burning; revitalising Country and knowledge by building community networks and recording cultural knowledge.
  • FUEL – Reading Country: To support learning by observation, mentoring and sharing of knowledge on Country.