Traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen working alongside Djiringanj elders at Wallagoot in 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen working alongside Djiringanj elders at Wallagoot in 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

'It's too important': Voices for traditional fire management continue to help grow wider awareness

'It's too important': Voices for traditional fire management continue to help grow wider awareness

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Many stories from the 1952 bushfires have been told over the years, however one tale is almost forgotten.

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Many stories from the giant bushfires of 1952 have been told over the years, however one tale showing the effectiveness of cultural burning appears to have been almost forgotten.

After it was reported in the media that the entire community of Wallaga Lake had been "wiped out by bushfires", it was later discovered that just the administrative buildings and the manager's home had been destroyed.

The burnt buildings had not been protected by fire breaks, made using traditional fire knowledge and land management techniques.

All these years we've been generous enough to share knowledge, and agencies just take it and run away with it themselves. - Traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen

The state's chief secretary at the time, Clive Evatt, a noted barrister and raconteur, who had been the one to initially falsely claim the community had been destroyed, said the use of "fire breaks" had saved lives and almost 30 homes as he told reporters the community could "teach many white Australians a lesson".

"This is one of the best examples of the protection fire breaks can give," he said at the time.

It is not known why it took days for authorities to check the community. Nearby farms were destroyed and their cattle sought refuge by the lake's edge. The fire was so fierce it reportedly "leaped" the large stretch of water completely.

Film maker, musician, and traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen has worked alongside Djiringanj elders, famously appeared on a special bushfire episode of Q&A, and recently released a book titled Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia.

"Since the fires there's been a massive interest from communities around the world. Philanthropists and agencies have been interested. It's been huge," he said.

Mr Steffensen said he hopes communities will be allowed to "steer the ship" on the use of cultural knowledge, and is concerned practices will be adopted but controlled by non-Indigenous land managers and firefighting agencies.

Inspired by the struggles of his mother's people, the Tagalaka of Northern Queensland, Mr Steffensen learnt from Kuku Thaypan elders Dr George Musgrave and Tommy George.

"These programs will take-off, but overall I hope agencies put communicates first," he said.

"It's always the problem with our [Australia's] current mindset.

A clipping from Wagga Wagga's Daily Advertiser on February 1, 1952. Chief Secretary Clive Evatt was forced to backflip on his original claims the community had been 'wiped out'.

A clipping from Wagga Wagga's Daily Advertiser on February 1, 1952. Chief Secretary Clive Evatt was forced to backflip on his original claims the community had been 'wiped out'.

"Everyone wants to be the boss, and no-one wants to work together.

"Climate change can't be dealt with by one agency alone. We need to be honouring people, community and place.

"It's all about greed and investments, and who will run the programs. It shows our fractured society and people not working together.

"We can't heal the environment if we're not working together," he said.

On national television he told the nation to "get in the passenger seat" and respect traditional knowledge around fire, which he said throughout history was used around the world.

He said the most important part of his role as a knowledge custodian is teaching children- the next generation of land managers.

"All these years we've been generous enough to share knowledge, and agencies just take it and run away with it themselves," he said.

Traditional fire practitioner Victor Steffensen argues for all Australians to pay closer attention to Indigenous land management practices.

"It's a serious problem. It's happened before, and I just know it will be this round. I hope everyone supports each other."

He said politicians have been "all talk" around the funding of traditional fire programs, and he said when questioned they insist he "put in a submission", and the conversation ends there.

"It's too important. There's a natural disaster," he said.

Mr Steffenson recently visited Canada with Djiringanj father and son, Warren Foster Sr and Warren Foster Jr to share knowledge of traditional burn methods.

Mr Foster, a Djiringanj elder, said even in the 1990s it was common for the NSW Rural Fire Service to put out the community's traditional fires with a hose, due to what he said was a widespread distrust among the non-Indigenous community of the methods.

"We were doing it to keep the community safe from big fires," he said.

Djiringanj man Dan Morgan has worked alongside Mr Steffenson, and in January said "the bushfire crisis is happening because the traditional fire regime of Australia hasn't been implemented for 200 years".

"Eighty per cent of our plant species need fire to germinate, but it has to be the right type of fire, it can't be too hot," he said.

Traditional techniques being used on Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council land near Wallagoot in May, 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Traditional techniques being used on Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council land near Wallagoot in May, 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

"By treating the land the same you get one type of country back, which is shrubby and choked up,"

The use of traditional techniques by the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council in 2017 near Tathra helped lessen damage caused by the March 2018 bushfire.

Despite the evidence, CEO Glenn Willcox said recently the council is "still working to secure adequate funding".

In January, Djiringanj elder Ken Campbell said he remembers stories of the 1952 fires, and said he felt it "ridiculous" his people are unable to collect firewood from the bush, as they had done for tens of thousands of years.

"I think national parks and the community need to have some serious meetings," he said.

Merriman's Land Council CEO Terry Hill, himself a former RFS employee, said the South Coast should have more mitigation crews, with the possibility of an Indigenous firefighting unit.

"There's been no concerted effort to include us," he said.

"The government should realise prevention is the cure."

He said a fire management regime should have been adopted alongside the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation.

Firestick Alliance CEO and Bundjalung man Oliver Costello will be presented on Tuesday to the inaugural National Bushfire and Climate Summit, which was attended by a number of local bushfire survivors.

Before it might've been palmed off, but people are listening. - Biamanga National Park's Board of Management chair and Walbunja elder Bunja Smith

"Our ancestors looked after this land for thousands of years through quite extreme changes in climate over long periods of time," he said

Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins, told the summit authorities have previously lost opportunities to embrace indigenous cultural burning and land management knowledge.

"The technology they've had for tens of thousands of years is that far beyond what we use ... it's unbelievable," he said.

One of the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is to look at ways in which traditional methods can improve resilience to natural disasters, including large bushfires like those of 2019 and 2020..

Chair of the Biamanga National Park's Board of Management and Walbunja elder Bunja Smith, said while a planned cultural burn around the Murrah Flora Reserve has been postponed, the wider community is more accepting of the techniques since the recent bushfire emergency.

"I'm pleased to see authorities are now a lot more legitimate in their looking at cultural burns," he said.

"Before it might've been palmed off, but people are listening."

Australian National University Professor of Natural History Simon Haberle has researched an area near Bemboka he calls "Bega swamp", and said in 2017 that evidence shows an increase in "big fires" since European settlement.

The paleoecologist said the swamp sediment, sampled at a very fine resolution, paints a picture of the landscape in freeze frames of every 20 years, stretching back over 15,000 years.

Traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen with around 40 community members during a cultural burn at Wallagoot in 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen with around 40 community members during a cultural burn at Wallagoot in 2018. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

"It also shows that in the past mega fires only occurred very rarely, once every 4000 years, and that the current situation of big and intense fires is unusual in the long-term history of the region," he said.

"You see big changes in fire management, because you can look at the charcoal and see what burning regime took place.

"It was a regular regime, Aboriginal people knew how to keep fuel loads lower."

The state government's local Koala Recovery Coordinator Chris Allen said in February he supports the use of cultural burning techniques to help protect the endangered animals, as well as human life and property.

Mr Steffenson said politicians have told him directly they feel they risk losing votes at the ballot box if they publicly support and fund traditional ideas.

"They should realise that they would actually be very popular,' he said.

"I don't know what goes on in their heads. Policies are put together by faceless party leaders, and it feels like [the movie] Star Wars, with them sitting in the background. They never want to contribute to the work and help.

"It's our right to look after our own regions if people learn about the knowledge."

He said despite the interest shown on Q&A towards funding the practices, he was not contacted after the show for further discussions.

"Will they support communities to run programs?, or will they just add steroids to current services with no change across the board?," he said.

The story 'It's too important': Voices for traditional fire management continue to help grow wider awareness first appeared on Bega District News.

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