When Victoria’s Aboriginal heritage sites are under threat from natural disasters such as fire, flood or plague, Russell Smith and six of his colleagues are in the frontline of the battle to save them.

Mr Smith is a heritage specialist with Forest Fire Management Victoria — a special team of officers charged with looking out for everything from ancient scar trees to sacred sites.

“Growing up in a semi-traditional life, I was taught from an early age the customs and practices of what it means to be and how to live traditionally,” Mr Smith said.

Mr Smith is stationed in the Loddon Mallee region, while fellow officers look after Hume, Grampians, Gippsland, Port Phillip and Barwon South West.

He said the role is unique in Australia. Heritage officers support other staff and crew on how to manage heritage sites in and out of emergencies and on big projects.

“Forest Fire Management Victoria has a duty to protect all Aboriginal cultural heritage on Crown Land we manage,” Mr Smith said.

“In times of emergencies, such as fire, we would try to protect those heritage places that are combustible such as scar trees.

“In a flood situation, we would try and ensure that no heritage is harmed in the construction of levy banks or any other temporary structure to stop the flooding.

“In times of pest plague — either flora or fauna — we ensure that chemicals used do not harm any Aboriginal heritage.

“Fires are the most common emergency I deal with in my role.”

He said in 2009, while working on the Black Saturday fires, he met the American Burned Area Emergency Response Team, which had a heritage specialist.

“The information and knowledge I taught to myself and my colleagues really gave us an understanding of tactics and strategies of using various protection methods for different types of heritage places,” he said.

“Forest Fire Management Victoria has adopted some of the principles around the BAER team. I am currently a member of the Victorian equivalent called the Bush Fire Rapid Response Assessment Team of BRRAT, where I am an Aboriginal Heritage Specialist.”

A survey of just five percent of the Loddon Mallee region revealed 20,000 registered heritage places.

Mr Smith said in his role he talks regularly with Registered Aboriginal Parties and other traditional owner groups.

“The traditional owners or RAPs see value in working with Forest Fire Management Victoria,” he said.

“As the Crown Land Manager, we can ensure that their heritage is protected in all the work that Forest Fire Management Victoria does including firefighting, roading and general forest management.

“They can work with us and provide us heritage specialists (with) valuable knowledge and different effective strategies in managing their heritage.”

Wendy Caccetta

reporter@nit.com.au