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Wake up and smell the smoke

Guest Author -

Tjaltjraak Elder Ron 'Doc' Reynolds knows this Country. He knows the way we prepare for and manage bushfires isn't working.

"This is a sick Country," he said.

"This is not a healthy Country.

"Look at the bush, it's green but it's a dry green."

Like thousands of Australians, Doc watched on with great sadness as last summer's bushfire crisis devastated not only people's lives, homes and businesses, but the Country itself.

The aftermath brought the nation's western-style bushfire management practices under scrutiny, with experts advising Indigenous fire management practices be a part of the solution.

Across Western Australia, Indigenous fire management practices and cultural burning principles are becoming more widely recognised and included in fire management regimes.

In the state's southeast, the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation is working with stakeholders to bring cultural burning principles to the forefront of bushfire management.

The ETNTAC actively seeks partnerships with landowners, offering to assist them in better managing their land and protecting Country.

The work of the corporation is informed by the ETNTAC Circle of Six Elders as they pass down their cultural burning knowledge to the younger generation.

Mr Reynolds said Indigenous burning principles are beginning to be recognised and included.

"One of the things you do find now, and it's been a long time coming, is that [government agencies] are more receptive to having bushfire or cultural burning principles embedded in their fire mitigation strategies and in their planning going forward," he said.

"At the end of the day we've got to burn that bit of bush, and we'll have our way of doing it and you'll have your way, but at the end of the day we want that bush to come back or that Country to come back healthier."

A prescribed DFES burn scorching the land in Mundlinup State Forest. Photo by Isabel Vieira.

A time of renewal

Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania David Bowman said Australia is in a time of renewal in the way it manages land and bushfire practices.

"Because we're in a renewal we can use new techniques, we can adapt to climate change, we can adapt to landscapes that have been degraded by weeds by feral animals, we can adapt to landscapes that have been heavily cleared where we only have little pocket nature reserves," Professor Bowman said.

"We have all of these adaptive opportunities, let's adapt and let's innovate and let's involve Aboriginal peoples in this."

Professor Bowman said Australia is still learning how to integrate Indigenous fire management practices.

"Although there's now widespread recognition for the need to involve Aboriginal peoples in fire management, how to do this in a culturally respectful way that is socially just and effective remains a challenge," he said.

"We're looking into solutions, but the solutions are going to be different to what we're currently doing."

In June 2020, the Western Australian Government created the first traditional fire program coordinator role at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, based at the Bushfire Centre for Excellence in Pinjarra.

Coordinator Wayne Davis engages with Aboriginal communities to incorporate traditional practices with contemporary methods as part of the State's efforts to reduce bushfire risks.

He said the State Government has made a critical step forward in shaping a process to find fire mitigation solutions nationwide.

"Including traditional and cultural burning practices will certainly be a component of solutions going forward, in terms of fire management and applying those methodologies," Davis said.

"I think it's critical that traditional and cultural burning practices and methodologies are embedded in contemporary fire management as an extra resource, tool or just knowledge in how to better manage Country."

Traditional fire program coordinator Wayne Davis. Photo by Isabel Vieira.

Private actions

Outside of government and local community, private practitioners are incorporating Indigenous fire management practices as part of their bushfire mitigation work across Perth.

Entire Fire Management co-founder Gavin Fancote said views on bushfire management are changing and wider perspectives are being recognised.

"Responsibility is shifting, there will be more independence, so therefore from an independent point of view we want to use as much experience that's around as possible," he said.

"Especially in Western Australia, we're lucky enough to have a State Government who's putting funding towards it, which gives opportunities for more experienced people to stand up and it doesn't just rely on the volunteers, or on the Indigenous community or on one sole person or organisation.

"The fact that they're spending money and letting local governments trial things and take different approaches, that's the key. It's about letting the local government take responsibility and just helping them to get the resources to trial different things."

Co-founder of Entire Fire Management Gavin Fancote. Photo by Isabel Vieira.

Fancote said the passion shared by his father, grandfather and the Elders within his community growing up inspired him to carry on their legacy in his bushfire mitigation work.

"We return to the areas that we manage constantly, every three months or so ... to see the bush thrive, and that bestows on me that we're doing the right thing," he said.

"It encourages me, I'm passionate about it and it's something that I wholly believe in, that if we did [back-burning] right, we could live in amongst this beautiful area, where I grew up and in these sorts of bushlands and not be threatened by bushfires every summer."

A slow burn

Mr Reynolds said the holistic process of culture is what informs the cultural burning principles.

"When you look at culture, culture is a holistic process where you can't just pick and choose what you want. A part of that process is caring for Country which is critical because if you don't look after Country, Country can't look after you and that's where the burning principles come in," he said.

"We're showing the people and the young fellas why cultural burning was critical and that it was a process that you needed to do in a manner that was consistent with your cultural beliefs.

"By working with our young rangers we're showing them how you have to do it; it's long, it's slow, it's tedious but the long-term benefit is going to be no more wildfires, no more deaths and more importantly you're going to have a healthy Country."

Mr Reynolds at a cultural site near Wharton Beach, Esperance. Photo by Isabel Vieira.

ETNTAC has received funding from the National Indigenous Australians Agency to implement their Healthy Country Plan.

The plan includes Elders working with senior and junior cultural rangers to reinstate their cultural burning principles, while working with various partners.

Mr Reynolds is optimistic Indigenous cultural burning principles will become recognised and incorporated as a part of the solution to the bushfire crisis.

"I'm very hopeful ... that this time next year we will be very well advanced in our fire engagement processes with the other relevant agencies, that our cultural burning principles will have started to become embedded and recognised," he said.

"We want you now, to help us or include us, so that we can help you."

By Isabel Vieira

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