In the latest Griffith Review Backstory podcast – in support of Griffith Review 71: Remaking the Balance – Nance Haxton explores the return of Indigenous fire regimes to Australia’s landscape for ecological management and cultural practice. She encounters practitioners and stories that speak to the power of this tool in terms of recovery, reconnection and reconciliation.
This is the Griffith Review Backstory podcast. I’m Nance Haxton.
At this time of the summer of 2021, we look back over our shoulder to the fires that ravaged Australia’s east coast only a year ago and wonder how we can live more harmoniously with this wide brown land.
While there is no silver bullet to prevent fires of that magnitude from happening again, particularly in the face of climate change, there is growing interest in the success and revival of traditional Indigenous fire practices to help ameliorate their looming threat. Research published in the New Scientist soon after last year’s momentous bushfires shows the scale and intensity of bushfires will increase as climate change also becomes more severe. That research also found that fire weather seasons have become longer around the world since 1979.
The Bushfire Royal Commission recently handed down its report pleading for action and unity from all levels of government to improve natural disaster responses as risk grows under climate change.
In this episode of The Backstory, I speak to Aboriginal people on the ground about how they are reconnecting with traditional practices that have been used for thousands of years to prevent destructive fires and revitalise the bush landscape.
This podcast complements the 71st edition of Griffith Review, Remaking the Balance.
From Australia’s wild savanna country in the Top End to preventing the return of destructive bushfires on idyllic islands such as Minjerribah, as it’s known in the Jandai language, or Stradbroke Island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, more credence is being given to fire practices of traditional owners that were largely lost or ignored after white settlement.
For Quandamooka Principal Ranger Jacob Martin, walking on and protecting the country of his ancestors on Minjerribah is one of the great privileges of his job.
JACOB: Just putting it – like, bringing it back to what it used to look like. Taking other younger brothers and sisters [and] cousins and that, take them down there and you’re just blown away, you just don’t realise how much our mob have been locked out of our own country in such a short period of time. We’ve got cultural sites that are dated 20,000-plus years back and in short two generations, a short 200 years you’re locked out of so much of your own country that our people once walked all over.
We’re going to try and get it back, you know how the wildfires were killing all the big trees. We're doing what we can now to get rid of that mid-storey, get some more brackens and understorey, you know, get that lower fuel going good. To try and save the big trees.
NANCE: It sounds really complex, kind of putting it together. I think most people who don’t have this knowledge would just go, oh yeah, you know, fires. We don’t want it to be too hot, but there’s obviously all these different levels. Can you tell us a bit about sort of what goes into it and what you’re trying to preserve, I suppose.
JACOB: Yeah, mainly for us, we do, it’s mainly sort of hazard reduction burns around assets and stuff like houses or viewing platforms and stuff like that. Or we just have our general planned burns that get the bush’s health back, you know. And try and get it back to what it used to be pre-colonisation. And that’s more, it’s running right from the tops of ridges, letting it come down. Burn as cool as we can, making sure that soil moisture’s there. Not too dry and just, yeah, trying to promote that grass and the lower storey fuel, not so much real thick mid-storey fuel. Stuff you can walk through comfortably, you know, not real thick that you can’t walk through.
It’s not always been possible to do that on his traditional lands and workplace at Minjerribah.
For decades, large tracts of land on the island were off limits because of sand mining, meaning traditional owners couldn’t access them.
JACOB: It’s a huge island, but I’ve been to a lot of places on this island that my parents had never been to, that my grandmother hadn’t been to. Two thirds of the southern section on Straddie, locked out from the mines and we’d been down there to some pretty culturally significant sites that my mother has never stepped foot on. And my grandmother, I’m not 100 per cent sure, but pretty definite that she hadn't seen that. There’s so many places that I've been able to reconnect with, that my family haven’t been able [to] because of the mines and things like that.
NANCE: That must’ve been really moving for you to actually be standing on that country.
JACOB: Oh, it is.
Sand mining has now ended on the island, and Jacob is taking me on a walk through Mount Bippo Penbean on a bright summer’s day just before Christmas 2020. He’s reviewing a control burn that went through this area only a few weeks ago.
Green undergrowth is already growing throughout the burn site, and wildlife is returning.
JACOB: Oh a couple of lizards and look there’s a goanna! Look at that! The animals are coming back. No shortage of wildlife that’s for sure.
But to Jacob, this renewal and regeneration is to be expected after what he describes as a planned cool burn.
JACOB: To be honest, it sort of looks like a wildfire’s gone through here, but over the next ten years or so, putting a burn in every three to five years will probably prevent or not, sorry, or probably, not probably will definitely get it back to what the bush should be like.
NANCE: Yeah. And look these beautiful... These have all come back, just...
JACOB: Yeah, no, all the grass trees. They come back nicely. Burn the skirts off them. Oh, they’ve already flowered. But you know, for most of that flowering...
NANCE: Oh yeah, this one’s got a big flower coming out of it. So it must be really rewarding to kind of be part of this and to see the country respond in this way.
JACOB: Oh, it’s real good. You know, like growing up, not really being educated about it in school, then being lucky enough to get a job as a ranger on my mother’s country and then being taught by our elders, even non-Indigenous people teaching us about what good country is and what bad country is. And then being able to change that cycle and try and bring the not so healthy or the sick country back to good country. It’s unexplainable how good it is. And to be able to do it these days, you need to have a paid job to provide for your family. And what better way to have a paid job [than] working on your country, looking after your country.
In 2014, the safety of people on Minjerribah came under threat when a massive bushfire forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and tourists from the island. It was a disaster both ecologically and financially, coming in the island’s peak tourist season.
But Jacob looks back now and realises that was a critical turning point for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation, or QYAC, which now has much more say in how the fire threat on the island is managed.
He says walking through this country today is proof that fire, when properly managed over years, helps regenerate the land.
JACOB: I started a trainee rangership, I think around 2009. And just watching that cycle, you know, back then we were more there to help and we were following people, but we were lighting fires from the bottoms of the hills and just getting the job done quick back then, not knowing. And then to now see that change progress to the exact opposite, lighting it from the tops, letting it come back down. Not only is there a change in us having a say how we manage our land, [but] there’s a change in how it’s done.
NANCE: And is that applying knowledge, going back more than 20,000 years, obviously with the continual connection to country; where does that knowledge come from?
JACOB: Oh yeah. There’s mixed knowledge. We’ve both been taught from my elders and, like I said earlier, by non-Indigenous people, how –
NANCE: Bit of a mix?
JACOB: Yeah. So back when I said we were lighting from the bottom of the hill, that was led by non-Indigenous people on our country. And then even now, when we assist with fires, the non-Indigenous people are burning it the way we would burn it.
It’s a similar story on Indigenous lands on the opposite side of Australia, far away from Minjerribah, up in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia’s north.
Chantelle Murray is the women’s ranger coordinator for the Ngurrara Rangers at Fitzroy Crossing, working on some of the most isolated country in Australia. She sees firsthand the difference traditional fire management has made to the country.
CHANTELLE: That area that we do our ranger work is mainly jila living waterhole country – sand dune areas – just miles and miles of sand dunes… It takes us sometimes two to three days to get out to our main area to do monitoring and even fire management. It’s a very big area, like 100,000 square kilometres of rugged lonely country. Our people have walked from the desert about sixty years ago and they painted on the [Ngurrara] canvas where they’ve walked and it’s an aerial view of all the sand dunes and waterholes that have been visited throughout the Great Sandy Desert just by foot and that’s been painted on the [Ngurrara] canvas by where they’ve walked and what they’ve seen.
NANCE: And what difference has it made; the fire management that you mentioned – has that made a big difference to the country?
CHANTELLE: In the past, years ago, before Ngurrara Walmarjarri people walked off the desert, [they] have used fire as a tool and they managed and looked after country and country was nice and healthy, burnt areas and hunting grounds looked after real good and that prevented wildfires back then. And over the years just seeing the scale of late-season fires, unplanned fires – just looking at the scale you can see the difference.
She explains how the traditional practices of early-season burning reduces fuel loads, creating a mosaic pattern on the landscape - a patchwork of burnt and unburnt country, which in turn slows down late season fires that start from lightning strikes and would otherwise burn out of control.
CHANTELLE: And the pattern, as the mosaic forms, you know; with ranger programs, that gave us access to not just going out on country and burning where it needs to be burned, just from looking at maps, but it also gave us the access to traditional knowledge. Some of the rangers are very new and still learning the importance of fire. And why we do certain burnings in certain times of the year – that gave us the access to cultural knowledge and using the tools that old people use. I think that one of the most important things is having that cultural knowledge and Western ways of doing burning out on country, you know.
NANCE: So the mosaic pattern that you use, that’s a key part of the fire prevention strategy?
CHANTELLE: It is. The mosaic is to prevent those late-season burnings that’s coming from the east and the west, you know. And I’d just like to say you know that without partners and traditional owners we wouldn’t be able to deliver our work on country and that’s why we need to have them on country and have that two-way learning – constant two-way learning through Western science and cultural knowledge.
Wildfires in northern Australia’s savanna country cause enormous damage. Often the fire fronts are several metres high and spread quickly, which – given the remote nature of much of that country – makes them almost impossible to control, as strategic fire operations officer for the Kimberley Land Council Richard Whately explains.
RICHARD: The whole theory behind the return to traditional fire management is that Indigenous people, Aboriginal people, before European settlement, they were out on country managing the land. And one of their main tools for that management, and probably the most visible, was fire management.
They burnt early in the season up here. I can only really talk from Kimberley context, but for however many tens of thousands of years that Indigenous people were in the Kimberley landscape, they were burning. And that’s in the records...so anthropological records in cave sites, they had fires, and all the rest of it.
But another way that some people say that you can map human arrival is [through] micro-charcoal and those sorts of things in lake beds in sediments. Because you’ve got the layers of time that people are there and they’re burning, and an increase in micro-charcoal in the sediments appears when people come to an area. And there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence from the earlier settlers in diaries with Aboriginal people constantly out lighting fires for all sorts of different things: hunting, cooking, signalling. They do a lot of fire for cultural practice as well. So there’s all these different reasons that Indigenous people were burning, and they were actually managing hunting grounds, or managing woodland so that they had clear areas to go out and hunt things like kangaroo or wallaby. It was a significant land management process and that’s then. And there’s a lot of books about it now, and more and more people are becoming aware of it.
NANCE: And was that kind of taken away, essentially, in the last century or two?
RICHARD: Well, the general theory is that as European settlement happened, people were moved from the landscape and they might’ve gone into missions. Governments declared that areas were now in a leasehold for pastoral reasons, so pastoral operators came in, and people who were previously dispersed throughout the landscape were moved into these small areas, into outstations or missions. They weren’t able to practice their burning as widely. Pastoralism obviously had compounding effects by the introduction of cattle. Cattle eat the vegetation, change the structure of vegetation, change its soil structure as well. And then you add into that a lot less fire a lot less often. And it ends in a bit of a compounded effect on the fire regime and the wildlife within that area.
So the theory behind the return to traditional fire management is to put more fire back into the landscape. That can be through ground burning, but as you probably know, the Kimberley is very sparsely populated, and so is the Great Sandy Desert, the northern aspects of the Great Sandy Desert; people aren’t walking around doing those fires as much anymore. It’s not that they’re not doing them, they still do, but they’re doing it a lot less, or they have been doing it a lot less. And you see a really significant change in the fire regimes as a result of that removal of people.
And a lot of the change in fire regime is anecdotal again because we don’t have satellite imagery and all those sorts of things that we do now. But now we do have burn scar mapping and aerial photography is being used, prior to satellite mapping as well, to suggest that there used to be a lot more burning in a lot smaller area. And that there were smaller, little patches of early burnt vegetation, which pulled up those really big late-season bushfires that you see out in the desert. You do see a few fires in the desert that they call megafires; 2017 is a really good year to have a look at, for a huge megafire in the Ngurrara area that nearly got into areas of Karajarri as well, over to the west. And that was pulled up by some early-season burning that those Karajarri rangers and some of the Ngurrara guys had done as well.
NANCE: And if that burning hadn’t have happened, that massive wildfire could have spread further and caused more damage, basically.
RICHARD: Yeah, and you see that really often, and you can see it very clearly in satellite mapping that we have access to now.
Pete O’Connor is the ranger coach with the Dambimangari Aboriginal Rangers in the Kimberley.
He says the revival of traditional fire practices has led not only to less destructive wild fires in the region, but also to stronger cultural connections to country.
PETE: The significance of fire and bringing back these practices is that it’s really good too and beneficial for the people to get back onto country.
Which is a good cause, and that’s one of the main kind of characteristics of the ranger program is kind of working with some of the old people and the young people and getting them back on country. And through fire and firewood, that’s what we do. We take old people back out and they’re back out on country and kind of just feel really young again, to be able to walk the country.
They try to teach us the knowledge of the right time to burn, right season for burning and what it actually does, the significance of the fire, because there’re certain seeds in that country that we need a hot fire to go through for it to be able to grow, for it to slip back from seed pods to create a plant. It’s also for the animals as well because we use fire for hunting. Now, when we burn the fire, it kind of cooks the grass up as the next one to get a bush turkey and that’s food for old people and that’s kind of bringing traditional food back for them and also teaching the young kids what right food to eat throughout the season.
There’s a whole storyline to fire itself, from when it was born and how we use it today, even with modernised ways of using it. There’s a lot of ways though why fire can be useful to one person and not just one person, but I guess the whole community. And now obviously looking at the kind of carbon projects that we do for the rest of the world, I guess.
NANCE: And it sounds like there’s a lot for wider Australia to learn, I suppose, too, that we don’t have to be afraid of fire. It’s about learning when is the right time to use it?
PETE: Yeah, that’s right. There’s a lot of people when they see a fire come…they run. But we’ve got a term that we use as rangers that we fight fire with fire and that’s learning how to do back-burns and burning off different kinds of barriers in the country that controls the fire. So it doesn’t harm the animals, harm the country, harm the land and harm people, I guess.
NANCE: And the benefits, as you’ve explained so beautifully, they’re so wide aren't they, it’s benefits for older generations, for the new generations coming through. Just that reconnecting with country.
PETE: Yeah. And that’s kind of the main thing you get out of it because the fire that we use, we use it in so many different ways. We use it for cooking, we use it for smoking ceremony when people are visiting country or we’re taking people to a different country and when they’re leaving so that they feel cleansed when they leave the country. Because it’s our responsibility as Indigenous people that people are able to walk the country and feel safe. And that’s what a smoking does. It cleanses the body, it cleanses the soul and it cleanses the country. And we also use it for ceremonial use for when young fellows have become men, and also when we lose old people and family members; we use it as a cleansing as well, to accept the fact that they’re gone. And that’s how we smoke the person and [it] kind of brings them back and sends them off, the old people.
NANCE: It must be exciting for you as a ranger to see this happening. To see these ceremonies that I suppose really could have been lost and to see them back being used.
PETE: Yeah, it is. I grew up away from my cultural land and Dambi country is one of the hardest lands to actually access and it’s done by helicopter or boat. And stepping back into the ranger role – and now as a cultural ranger – IT’S kind of boosted my confidence, driving me for what I actually want to do. Because I didn’t grow up with my old people that I wish I could’ve, and learning the knowledge of the ones that I’ve got left now is kind of making an impact on me to be able to gain this knowledge and give it to the next generation so that they don’t lose it. And just kind of filling up the gaps there that I didn’t have I guess.
Kristina Koenig is the program manager for carbon and enterprise development at the Kimberley Land Council.
She says through commercial carbon credit schemes, this Indigenous fire management revival has also led to a strong income stream for Indigenous communities, which in turn keeps the programs going, funds more Indigenous rangers, and has social and cultural impacts.
KRISTINA: It’s under the Emissions Reduction Fund, which is a federal government initiative, that some groups are able to effectively subsidise their burning program through carbon credits. And what that means is that the shift in fire regimes from late-season fires to earlier in the season means that we can calculate the carbon emissions that are being reduced so the greenhouse gas reduction can actually be quantified. And for that, groups can earn carbon credits, which can then be sold either to the government or in the voluntary market to earn some revenue, which contributes to making those programs sustainable over the years.
NANCE: So by preventing those massive wildfires, it’s not only got benefits obviously for the ground environment and for the people who live in that region as well, but also for the climate, essentially because those vast amounts of carbon are not being released into the atmosphere.
KRISTINA: Yeah, exactly. So that shift in fires – and it actually also is proven to lead to a reduction in total fire overall; it’s not just the shift in reduction and intensity, but actually a reduction in the area burnt – means there’s the obvious benefit for greenhouse gas reductions and emissions reduction.
And then there’s a whole host of other benefits that comes with those fire programs, including fire programs under the carbon legislation, which is just for traditional owners, to get back out on country. So that that revenue that comes in, that can be reinvested to keep the program going, get the old people back out there, get the young people out and transfer that traditional knowledge.
That’s obviously all in addition to protecting infrastructure and lives and reducing the risk from, as you say, those late-season fires, but so many other benefits from a social and cultural perspective that come with actually going back to that more traditional regime and really good planning. And also, in terms of collaboration between Indigenous ranger groups and different government agencies, for example, landholders: that is really important because as we know, fire doesn’t respect boundaries on a map. So that’s something really positive that’s come out of that. And then, as a result, the carbon credits that are generated and the revenue that they generate through sales into the markets, give remote communities that opportunity to actually have an economy and have that money come back in and subsidise all sorts of other services – both ranger work in terms of biodiversity work, for example, but also education. And of course, the training that comes with this work, but also other training programs that they might choose to invest in.
The Indigenous Carbon Industry Network is a relatively new group of more than thirty Indigenous-owned organisations that operate across northern Australia to develop and support carbon mitigation projects, mainly through managing fires on the vast savanna lands.
Anna Boustead is the co-ordinator of the network, and says integrating the fire management knowledge of traditional owners, garnered over thousands of years, has transformed the landscape of northern Australia, revived links to culture and provided important income for Aboriginal communities.
ANNA: The network has been going for just over two years and it’s really evolving all the time, and interest is really growing given the opportunities the carbon market offers traditional Indigenous owners to earn revenue while caring for country through savanna fire management, and there’s also growing opportunities in other methods as well. We’re making inroads in the recognition of Indigenous rights and interests in the carbon industry and providing a platform for member organisations to showcase their carbon projects so that people can see all the great benefits that people are delivering for Australia and the world.
NANCE: How are carbon credits earned?
ANNA: The way that the carbon credits are accounted for through the savanna burning method is that the groups predominantly do their burning in the early part of the year and [that] can include on-the-ground burning as well as burning from helicopters using incendiaries and that prevents the number of and spread of hot fires later in the season. And the groups do work together to suppress hot fires at this time of year when it’s very hot and very humid and those fires are much more damaging in terms of emissions. Essentially it’s a patchwork or mosaic kind of burning.
NANCE: It’s brilliant that Aboriginal people have such ownership over the project.
ANNA: Yes, they are Indigenous-led projects and Indigenous-owned.
The principles of reviving Indigenous fire practices have been so successful they are now spreading overseas.
Jeremy Russell-Smith is a professor of fire ecology at Charles Darwin University in Darwin. But for this interview he spoke to me from Botswana about how the Australian and Botswanan governments are now working together to see how these principles might apply to very fire-prone parts of Southern Africa.
JEREMY: Yes, there are big challenges in this part of the world, which basically we also had to overcome in Australia when we started realistically after Kyoto. And looking at a whole lot of regulatory and other such impediments, let alone effectively engaging with a long tradition of Indigenous knowledge and practice about how a country should and could be managed, and the same sort of issues apply here. In Botswana, for example, they have a fire suppression policy and local communities are excluded from being able to practise their traditional approaches, but as happened in northern Australia, once you can demonstrate that there’s a good opportunity, those barriers can break down very rapidly.
NANCE: It also brings back a lot of animals as well as plants... So it’s not just about preventing fire, it’s also about renewing that environment?
JEREMY: Yes. So if you look at essentially the collapse of the traditional management system from the late 1800s with colonisation and people leaving their country and the breakdown of their social systems; if you just looked at the Arnhem Land region, the East Alligator country, the ethnographic literature would suggest there were about 2,000 people occupying and living in [and] managing those landscapes at the turn of the 1900s. Within a generation that was down to about eighty people. And so you had a whole breakdown of the fire management processes. A lot have just continued with the burning of the country from early in the dry season, setting up essentially big patchy firebreaks everywhere. And the replacement of that sort of system with an unmanaged system prone to periodic and very extensive, late dry-season wildfires burning thousands of kilometres square every few years. So total breakdown of the system, big environmental repercussions, ecological impacts just as you’ve mentioned, and then finding a means, through these carbon projects, to be able to financially support the reintroduction and resurgence of the traditional practices.
NANCE: It’s a wonderful confluence, isn’t it, to be able to actually revive culture with actually having an income. I think that’s...a lot of people wouldn’t actually realise that.
JEREMY: Well, look, that’s really the secret to it. We have to say because when you look at the fire management problems of northern Australia, it's an area stretching from, carbon-price wise, from Broome to Townsville: 1.2 million square kilometres – Tasmania’s is 60,000 square kilometres – and over a greater part of that area, especially in the north, half of it would get burned each year, mostly by late dry-season wildfires.
So it set in train a chronic management problem, a global problem, the level of emissions, environmental ecological impact being caused. And so to set in train a process whereby land managers, whether they’re Indigenous, non-Indigenous, pastoralists, national parks people, conservation managers generally have an economic opportunity to try to rebuild a more conciliatory fire management regime: it’s pretty remarkable and there’s now projects covering one quarter of that whole 1.2 million square kilometre area. And that’s all happened basically over the last decade.
While islands such as Minjerribah are much smaller in scale [than] the large savanna lands that Jeremy speaks of, many of the same principles of fire prevention and using Indigenous collective wisdom and knowledge to fight fires apply.
Cameron Costello is the outgoing CEO of QYAC, which manages the native title rights and interests of the Quandamooka people on North Stradbroke Island. They were formally recognised as the native title holders in a special federal court hearing on the island on 4 July 2011, recognising their connection to the island going back more than 20,000 years.
Cameron says the return of Indigenous rangers to oversee fire management on the island is a crucial part of the process of gradually reclaiming cultural practices that were nearly lost. He says there have been no large out-of-control bushfires since the big fire on the island in 2014, which is a great success story for the local community.
CAMERON: There was a big wildfire. At that point, I would say that that highlighted where the Quandamooka people probably weren’t involved in fire management, particularly in emergencies. From our perspective, we were banging on the door of the incident control centre to come in and play a role. Throughout that process, it became very apparent of the value of traditional owner knowledge on the island in fighting the wildfire. So from that, it was like a catalyst of really engaging with us. Our young rangers like Jacob were coming through and being trained up in fire management. And so in 2017, when another wildfire commenced... Both fires commenced from lightning strikes from storms in Eighteen Mile Swamp, which is a peat swamp, and it just takes off.
So by 2017, the collaboration and the training and the capacity-building of young rangers coming through was just so... I’ll never forget it, being the CEO at the time, because our young rangers have been trained up and there was a moment in the 2017 wildfires where the wind was going to change at about two o’clock in the morning. I was having a very sleepless night because our rangers had the most intimate knowledge of the area where the wind was going to change, and so they were down there stationed, and I remember the wind go... Like it was, you could feel outside, it stopped because it was changing and then it was a sleepless night. But they came through and it was like, for me, it was like this moment where they’d emerged as firefighting professionals. That was amazing, that our rangers were now in that space. Now I feel like that’s when they’ve gone, ‘Yeah. We’re leading fire management.’
The state government actually provided and let the Quandamooka people lead the development, in partnership with other agencies, the township fire management strategies on the three townships for the island. So we actually led that process. Those were developed, and then the state government actually contracted out for the Quandamooka people to implement those. So not only in the national park, but for the township fire management, where we’re actually driving that. So when people into 2019 and into 2020 were talking about the national fire response, that traditional knowledge and fire management, we were actually ahead of the game.
NANCE: You were already there.
NANCE: Well, and is that something you’d hope that other communities could perhaps look to, the success of Stradbroke Island, particularly with fire management, and learn from that?
CAMERON: Yeah, I think there’s a few layers in there. One is about the day-to-day management. So having traditional owners who live on country have that knowledge in day-to-day management. They talk about cool burns and fire trails. Being involved in that day-to-day management is important, and the joint management of national parks is critical. That should be rolled out, in my view, across the state wherever possible, and so your fire management becomes ingrained. So traditional owner knowledge and fire management becomes ingrained in the day to day. Then there’s also, once the emergency starts, what’s the role of traditional owners being in that incident control room centre with the other agencies like QFES and Parks and all that sort of stuff as well. So there's those layers as well. And then there’s just the general cultural practices of fire for ceremony and stuff as well.
So there’s all those sorts of layers that we’re involved with that I’m just so really proud of the Quandamooka people and what we’ve done and being proactive. We know that other groups who have different types of landscapes as well – we’re in a coastal landscape, not in an outback sort of area. So wherever possible in terms of the east coast or the typical... I think there’s the models of management, but also, I think, learning. I think there’s opportunity for us to share and learn off other First Nations people about how they are doing fire management across the country, too. And I think, yeah, wherever we can, we always want to work with other mobs and help them out. But also just generally there’s some wonderful expertise and knowledge among non-Aboriginal people who we’ve had come on country, walk down to areas and actually look at cultural landscapes and how we can map out how we’re going to manage those with the collective knowledge. It’s almost a reconciliation process as well. The outcomes are all beneficial.
NANCE: So it's a real mutual respect process.
CAMERON: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I’d just love to see that roll out across Queensland and Australia, to have that joint coming together of fire. When you talk about new things that are happening around innovation and how do you manage fine utilisation of drones and all those sorts of things now, it’s really amazing to see what traditional owners come up with and think and collaborate on those innovative things as well. So we are positioned really nicely with Quandamooka because we’ve now, like last year, got native title rights over Mulgumpin, which is Moreton Island. So we’re looking to roll out and enhance the fire management for Mulgumpin as well, which we’re excited about, and working with local, rural fire brigades, all that sorts of stuff there. Yeah. Fire management’s a great collaborative and reconciliation space, I find, because we all have the same values of protecting life and property and wildlife and cultural heritage sites. So you can actually map that all out together.
Cameron Costello says the extensive bushfire on Fraser Island in late 2020 has been a wake-up call that fire management is a continual process.
CAMERON: I think the lessons will be learnt from Fraser Island, from K’gari, all of us will want to see what we can do better and what might be learnt and what resourcing might be needed. So our hearts go out to people in K’gari and the traditional owners up there and everyone that’s been impacted by bushfires across Australia in the last couple of years. It’s been, and it seems like it’s a growing danger across the... So, there needs to be a national focus on it and a national response so that we can all work together to make sure that yeah, fire is our friend. If we manage the landscapes properly, then fire is an important tool to do that and we should all work together to make sure it happens.
It's fantastic that Jacob and the new generation are coming through with that opportunity. What’s great is that they know that their elders didn't get that chance. And so they understand, and they have that sense of duty and obligation where they know that they’re caring for country where some of our elders didn’t get that opportunity. So, that’s really great too, that they do that with such pride. I mean, we’re so proud of them. They’re amazing. We’ve got female rangers conducting all-woman burns and stuff, which is really great as well.
NANCE: That's an important part, too, really reviving those practices.
CAMERON: Yeah, it is. I think that’s such a rewarding thing in my job is to see these cultural practices being reclaimed. The footsteps of our ancestors are there and we can hear them. We get to go down and look at these and protect some campsites and stuff, old campsites, ancient campsites, thousand-year-old campsites and go down and manage them and protect them for future generations.
In the meantime, Quandamooka Principal Ranger Jacob Martin will continue to walk the country of his ancestors at Minjerribah in his efforts to re-establish the cultural links to managing fire that protect the local community.
JACOB: Most Australian natives generate, or their seed regenerate from fire, to bring this back. And I’m sure in ten years’ time, they’ll see that change and hopefully understand, yes, it was cooked, but in three years’ time, we’ll come back and do another low cool burn and do that two or three times and it should be looking pretty good compared to what it was.
NANCE: So it’s far more complex. It’s not just preventing fire; it’s not that at all. It’s actually managing fire so that it doesn’t become those massive destructive fires, yeah?
JACOB: Yeah. A lot of people will see fire and are scared of it, you know. No need to be scared of fire; you just got to do it the right way. And our people have managed this country for tens of thousands of years by doing it the right way. We’ve just got to get our mob used to that, you know, learn from our elders, teach the next generation and get our mob back into country, lighting fires the right way, at the right time to keep our bush healthy, keep our bush tucker there.
Have that right burn there. If we don’t burn, some of our berries and stuff might get choked out by other plants that dominate with less fire burning, and that grass coming up keeping that open woodland forest benefits us for when we want to go hunting kangaroo and stuff, it’s more open. A bit hard when you get that thicker bush that hasn’t been burnt or has that high mid-storey fuel. Good luck hunting the kangaroo on that stuff.