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Talk is cheap, time for action: Yuin man promotes traditional fire management practices

Rachael Knowles -

Noel Webster, a proud Yuin man, asked for this to be noted before the article:

"I want to acknowledge Thaypan Fire Knowledge for their sharing and teaching, and that of Uncle Victor Steffenson and the Firesticks Alliance, they have moulded and shaped my journey and it is important that I pay that respect."

Connected to his Country and working with community, Noel Webster works within the South Coast community as an Aboriginal Community Support Officer with the Local Land Services and is involved with the Firesticks Alliance.

Webster has a firm belief in the power of Indigenous knowledge and cultural land practices.

"It is heart-breaking ... seeing the landscape the way it is, all that destruction. And having that knowledge that it doesn't have to be like this, there are preventatives that could have been taken beforehand," he said.

Webster's story begins working as a ranger within National Parks and Wildlife, however, he struggled to work within a Western framework that separated human and nature.

"I moved away from public land management ... and I started working with the Aboriginal community and private landholders to start managing Country and researching Indigenous ecological knowledge. And creating a sense of stewardship of people ... Making them become stewards of where they are connected, working in that space has been really empowering."

In his role now, Webster works with colleague Dan Morgan. The pair are in conversation with Department of Industries and Environment and National Parks and Wildlife to roll out projects centred on cultural land practices.

Through the Enhanced Bushfire Management Program (EBMP) the team along with academics at the University of Wollongong and the science team at the Department of Primary Industries and Environment, are researching the social science around connecting communities in bushfire. What keeps Webster going are those close to home.

"It's hard, you do see a lot of heartbreak in the country, you feel that emotion ... what is pushing me along is that I've been working with a lot of young people."

"I've been seeing the effort they put in, their commitment, their understanding and it makes my job a lot easier. We're investing a lot in these young fellas who are stepping up and making everyone proud."

Webster said the path forward needs a round table approach, where all people can come to the table.

"We all have to sit around at the same table, we all have little bits and pieces and stories; we can come together and merge knowledge systems, develop that framework."

"All the current fire regime and practices are based upon scientific methodology, then we have Indigenous fire methodology that is about reading landscape, listening to Country and Country is boss.

"Country has the ultimate say, no legislation or a piece of paper, or threshold, policy or procedure â€" Country is boss and that is the most important part to read when you do fire practice."

During the south coast fires, two sites where cultural burning had been employed were virtually untouched. One in Ulladulla and the other Bundanon, off the Shoalhaven River.

"That is proof that this works, it is a long-term commitment. We need to develop those regimes and keep those burns as practice ... It might be hard for people to understand but a simple terminology is, the more the burn, the less you burn," he said.

Burning in accordance with Indigenous knowledge and practice enables the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.

"We have thickets of vegetation with high fuel loads, there is no grass because it's suppressed with leaf litter which is carpeted thick and carries [fire] into the canopy."

"We need to open forest systems where the floor is grass, that carries the fire through. You need to read that grass and know when it's time to burn."

Without native grass in these landscapes, herbivores are forced into urban areas to feed â€" which then renders them pests and calls for culling.

"If traditional practices are applied back into the landscape, everyone benefits from it. There's food and moisture and the landscape becomes a productive environment."

Western fire containment methods have left a devastating legacy, and Webster believes it's time for Indigenous methods to take the reins.

"We need investment into Indigenous knowledge, there's no good acknowledging it then walking away. We need actions and outcomes ... We have fire practitioners across the country, have a listen and let us have a go."

"Talking is cheap, you see this all over the media, but actions speak louder than words ... let's have the investment, let's do something. It's encouraging to see it and get that exposure but let's get that action."

Like much of the community on the south coast, Webster is turning his focus to recovering his country.

"We are left behind, I have to see this every day and it's devastating down here ... but the job now is to recover. Let's get back out there, help heal and rebuild ... We need to work together to holistically rebuild this entire landscape, plants, animals, community and everyone."

To donate to Firesticks Alliance, please visit:

 By Rachael Knowles


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