To many Australians who live outside the cities and especially those who enjoy their homes among eucalyptus-rich bush settings, fire embodies a deadly menace that seems as unpredictable as it is unyielding.
Each year the same debate about back-burning and clearing of land erupts – whether there is too much, whether there is too little, whether it is going to be effective at all during those days of 45-degree heat when some thoughtless camper hasn’t paid attention to the fire ban.
Our relationship with fire is understandably hostile. The Black Saturday horror during the Victorian bushfires two years ago has etched its place in history along with the Christmas Day firestorms that plagued Sydney in 2000, and Ash Wednesday before that.
However, this perspective of seeing fire as a threat is being redefined. A collaborative project that brings together expertise across multiple faculties within UTS and Traditional knowledge revival Pathways (TKRP), an organisation that works to preserve Aboriginal practices, is developing better understanding about the unique relationship between the Australian landscape and burning.
The project, called Fire Sticks, intertwines Aboriginal knowledge and understanding with 21st-century science and technology to create an improved way of managing the land and, it is hoped, bushfires.
Before colonisation, fire was fundamental to the way many Aboriginal people lived with the land. As Dean Yibarbuk, a fire ecologist and elder, describes: “Aboriginal people burn to hunt, to promote new grass which attracts game, to make the country easier to travel through, to clear country of spiritual pollution after death, to create firebreaks for later in the dry season and a variety of other reasons which overall bring the country alive again.”
From this standpoint, fire has a positive impact. UTS Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication Design, Jacqueline Gothe, who helped initiate the project, says fire can be seen as an ancient way of gardening. “Conventional fire mitigation practices are about avoiding fire whereas traditional burning is about burning to give health to country.”
Rather than burning on a prescribed date, traditional practices involve being able to ‘read’ the land, looking at indicators such as how dry it is, considering what the plants and animals are doing in the area, the weather and making judgements about what kind of burning is most suitable, and when to burn.
This requires an intimate understanding of the land. Working with Gothe is UTS graduate and Jumbunna Fellow Oliver Costello (BA Adult ed. & Community Mgt., 2011) who says traditional ways of natural resource management involve communicating with the environment; interpreting what the land is saying, as well as being able to speak to the land in a language it understands. Costello explains that native Australian flora will react differently depending on the time and intensity of the burning. This means contemporary methods of hazard reduction could be doing more harm than good.
“At the moment most fire management is about reducing fuel loads, but there is not necessarily a lot of evidence that says that by burning things in this manner you’re actually going to achieve long-term reduction. Incorrect and poorly timed burning could be sending a message to that scrub to regenerate and rebound to produce as much or even more scrub than before.”
Costello’s interest in traditional fire management was sparked by his step-father, an elder from Arnhem Land who was skilled in traditional fire practices. Costello wondered if the same principles could be used where he lived, in the Blue Mountains. However, the transferral of this kind of knowledge presents some challenges. The language of the land is specific to each region, so the principles from northern Australia won’t be exactly the same for western Sydney because the landscape will follow different rules.
The problem of needing local expertise is compounded by the extent that Aboriginal culture and knowledge has been eroded. However Fire Sticks and TKRP are working to build on existing local knowledge by bridging principles from other communities.
Bolstered by funding from The E Robert Hayles & Alison L Hayles Charitable Trust, managed by Perpetual, Fire Sticks is sharing existing traditional knowledge
with government organisations as well as other Aboriginal people across the country to redevelop traditional skills. In recent workshops held in Cape York, representatives from NSW Aboriginal Communities, Parks and Wildlife Service, rural Fire Service and office of environment and Heritage shared experiences with Aboriginal fire practitioners.
Terry Hill from the NSW rural Fire Service attended the workshop and sees the potential for traditional practices to help relieve some of the “pressure points” in NSW. “We need to start changing the mindset of people. We need to get people to have a look and consider what Aboriginal people have to offer. For 40,000 years in this country there was a practice across the land that was common to all groups and that was fire management. We haven’t practiced that for the last 200 years but I can see [traditional knowledge] is part of the solution around fire management and hazard reduction.”
Transforming perceptions about fire and burning will require education. As part of Fire Sticks, the UTS Media Lab, together with students from the University, has been involved in documenting these workshops so this knowledge transfer can be shared on an even larger scale. By filming the workshops and capturing the processes and techniques of traditional fire management, this crucial knowledge won’t be being lost.
Costello says while the workshops have been a great success, the next stage will be developing test programs where knowledge learnt from northern Australia can be applied in different areas across NSW to learn how the land responds, and to generate techniques that can be applied in other areas.
If you would like more information or would like to support the Fire Sticks project, please contact Liz Hardy via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words: Vanessa Marks