With Australia experiencing progressively longer bushfire seasons and high intensity wildfires, the traditional burning practices used by many Indigenous Australians to manage Country for millennia are being given more attention as a means of reducing hazardous fuel loads and achieving ecological outcomes.

But the impacts of cultural burning programs extend far beyond these important safety and ecological benefits.

 

Community and family benefits

At the Jerrabomberra Wetlands in Fyshwick, Canberra, Wiradjuri man and ACT Parks and Conservation Service, Aboriginal Fire Management Officer, Dean Freeman, oversaw the final scheduled cultural burn for the 2019 calendar year.

Like all cultural burns in the ACT, it was planned and managed by a collective of Indigenous people working for ACT Parks known as the Murrumbung Rangers and was lit by a local Ngunnawal elder.

Mr Freeman pointed out two men present at the burn – the elder who lit the fire, Uncle Warren Daley, and a young Aboriginal Ranger. As the fire made its way slowly through the wetlands, they were engrossed in conversation, smiling and gesturing to each other.

“You see there, they are talking about family, about community. That is what fire does. It’s a great common denominator that brings our people together,” Mr Freeman said.

“You realise that once the burn has started to unfold, people are working with the fire, but all these different conversations are going on … People are sharing knowledge, sharing information, and they are getting to know a few people they haven’t met before.”

Mr Freeman said cultural burning programs play an important role in strengthening community bonds and facilitating the transmission of cultural knowledge from Elders to younger generations.

He also said events such as cultural burning workshops provide opportunities for family members who aren’t known to each other to meet and establish relationships.

 

Personal benefits for Rangers

Mr Freeman believes working in traditional land management for more than two decades has improved his self-esteem and life satisfaction.

Originally from Tumut, NSW, Mr Freeman described difficulties in his background that are all too common for Indigenous people.

He spoke of the very real threat of being taken from his parents by Government officials, forced relocation, racism, and a lack of job and other opportunities for himself and his siblings in Tumut and the surrounding areas.

“Knowing some of our backgrounds and where we could have been if we weren’t doing [traditional land management work] does keep you on the right track. It opens your mind up to what is possible when we are given an opportunity.”

Mr Freeman said his family, including his children, his partner and his parents, constantly tell him they are proud of him for the work he does and that he is doing the right thing.

In 2015, Mr Freeman was awarded the ACT NAIDOC Caring for Country Award in recognition of his valuable work in land management in the ACT.

Mr Freeman’s experiences are consistent with recent findings on the benefits of Aboriginal Rangers participating in traditional land management programs, such as the “very high life satisfaction” and “high family wellbeing” reported in Central Australia and the “sense of self-worth and pride” reported in the Top End of the Northern Territory.

 

Support for cultural burning

Having experienced the transformative potential of working in cultural burning, Mr Freeman would like to see cultural burning programs operating all over Australia.

There have been no successful Native Title claims in the ACT and there are no ACT-based Aboriginal land councils. Nonetheless, cultural burns have been conducted on public land since 2015.

As the Murrumbung Rangers are all originally from areas outside of the ACT, they ask a local Ngunnawal Elder to attend each cultural burn and light the fire.

“It is like a blessing to say they are supporting it and putting faith and trust in us to do land management on their country.”

“Our fire protocol is designed for a city. We generally think that if we can do a cultural burn in the middle of Canberra, Aboriginal people can do it on their own lands anywhere.”

In 2018, Mr Freeman travelled across to southern WA to exchange knowledge about cultural burning from south-eastern Australia with Traditional Owners and fire authorities.

When asked what other changes he would like to see in relation to fire and cultural burning, Mr Freeman had a few ideas.

“We need more burns but at a smaller scale. We could do a lot of burning up here in winter and it wouldn’t obliterate the bush. It would get rid of a fair bit of vegetation.

“You might still get a wildfire coming through, but you would lose a lot of the intensity so it would probably be a bit more manageable.”

Mr Freeman also encouraged people to make contact with Indigenous fire practitioners so they can learn about fire directly from those practitioners and, where possible, attend a cultural burn.

“Have a yarn about [the fire] as it goes through. That’s the big sharing of information and knowledge.”

“There is starting to be a lot more trust in Aboriginal land management practices … We have been locked out for so long and we’ve got so much to offer.”

By Simone King