Close the Gap with Improved Bushfire Management

The 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season was one of the worst in the world in recent times. 

According to Statista

  • As of January 2020, 34 people lost their lives
  • 1.5 billion wildlife animals were killed
  • 13 million hectares of land in NSW alone was burned
  • The largest area of land burned was conservation land 
  • At least 2.45 million hectares of agricultural land was destroyed
  • Insurance claims were valued at a minimum of 1.9 billion Australian dollars 

With annual mean temperatures increasing, and a high percentage of suspicious and/or deliberately lit bushfires, could it be the effects of climate change and drought or acts of arson causing such devastation?

Paul Wright, National Director of ANTaR, says that “the wider Australian community is starting to see the realities of ineffective western fire prevention methods, and there is also a growing recognition of the sophistication and sustainability of Indigenous practices, the increasing bushfire disasters are paving the way for reinvigoration and incorporation of traditional fire management techniques.”

Cultural burning, also known as cool burning, is a traditional form of aboriginal fire management that has been practiced for centuries. According to Creative Spirits the practice:

  • saves flora and fauna, because the heat, which is cooler than a hazard reduction burn, doesn’t ignite a tree’s bark,
  • is self-extinguishing, so the fire ends immediately after it burns the grass,
  • avoids chemical weed killers, as introduced species are not fire-resistant and can be removed with fire instead of chemicals.

In addition to the above-mentioned benefits, cultural burning prevents other problems that current bushfire backburning efforts create. Current bushfire management often leads to fire retardant being applied near waterways, and destroys conservation areas such as wetlands. On the contrary, Firesticks reveal how cultural burning can improve the health of particular plants and wildlife, or biodiversity in general. Patch burning, in which cultural burning may involve, has also been identified by the Central Land Council to reduce dangerous summer fires. Den Barber, an Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioner from the Wiradjuri – Mudgee people, reveals, “Unlike contemporary large scale hazard reduction burns conducted by public land owners and fire management agencies, Aboriginal cultural burning is not necessarily about conducting large area burns.  Cultural burns are applied to various systems that reflect the diversity of geology, the environment, ecology and botany that exist within any given area of country.”  

According to a 2015 report titled “Overview of Prescribed Burning in Australasia”, by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council Limited, burning practices by indigenous communities have been severely disrupted since colonisation. The report also reveals that the recognition of Native Title has helped to continue some traditional burning, and seen partnership develop between traditional owners and government fire agencies. Some of the problems relating to native title however, as Creative Spirits argue, is that it can be easily extinguished, has limited negotiation time, and claimants are at the whim of the legal system and changes of government and policy. 

Paul Wright believes that Australian politicians don’t do more for indigenous peoples for a number of reasons. He says that “Governments, agencies and communities fail to recognise these disproportionate impacts of fires on First Nations Peoples, and therefore addressing this in the development of bushfire responses and recoveries should be a paramount consideration.”

A 2014 academic research paper by Christine Eriksen titled “The retention, revival, and subjugation of Indigenous fire knowledge through agency fire-fighting in eastern Australia and California reveals that, by working in collaboration with indigenous communities state and federal agencies are actively asserting customary law, while at the same time helping to manage the current frequency of devastating wildfires. Although some Australian states are making shifts towards partnerships with indigenous communities, which has led to the implementation of cultural burning strategies, issues still remain. In 2020, a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements revealed how indigenous peoples’ perspectives may have been historically under-represented in policy development, demonstrated by their struggle to obtain equitable or timely access to government resources and consideration.

Den Barber states, “With the meaningful engagement of Aboriginal people by government, land management and fire authorities, an Aboriginal led revival of this practice could see cultural burn programs being implemented right across Australia.” Cultural burning could offer not only improved bushfire disaster management practices, but also progress better indigenous peoples’ health outcomes. As Firesticks reveal on their website, ‘cultural burning’ practices,  developed by Aboriginal people, “enhance the health of the land and its people.” Furthermore, according to the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), protective mental wellbeing factors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples include participation in the community and in selected cultural activities, access to social networks, and paid employment. With National Close the Gap Day coming up on March 18, 2021, indigenous-government cultural burning partnerships may in fact be a great benefit to indigenous peoples’ health, and to the whole of Australian society.   

Click HERE to find out more about ANTaR, an organisation that helped to establish Close the Gap Day. 

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Simone Francis

While studying a Certificate IV in Communications and Media in 2007, Simone Francis initiated her journalism career with an internship at the International Federation of Journalists. Since then, she has reported to capacity build for many organisations throughout the world. Simone also started a social enterprise in 2007 called Nomadic Hands and travelled throughout Latin America and Asia, bringing awareness via blogs and documentaries about issues such as oil exploitation in the Amazon rainforest and child sexual exploitation. With a Masters in Development Practice, and with a successful entry into a law degree this year, Simone plans to utilise her academic knowledge in conjunction with her reporting skills to continue supporting social and environmental causes globally.

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