Last summer’s horrendous bushfires scorched an indelible mark on Australia’s soul. The tragic loss of life and property made us realise – once again – that we must find better ways to help protect our lands from the scourge of fire. So, what can we do differently? The solution may just be tens of thousands of years old.
Indigenous cultural burning practices were developed through many generations of caring for native lands and keeping flora and fauna in balance. They involve planned and well-timed low-intensity fires to control weeds, remove thick undergrowth, improve track access and encourage the health of the right plants and animals. Cultural burns diminish fuel loads while promoting productive landscapes.
But cultural burning isn’t just a good way to help protect Australia’s bush from fire – it’s an essential way for Indigenous people to reconnect with country. As much as cultural burning is about risk mitigation and restoration, it’s a revival of an ancient philosophy and practice. Importantly, it helps restore local Indigenous people as the rightful custodians of the land.
Helping to protect their lands
The Bunya Peoples’ Aboriginal Corporation (BPAC) is taking responsibility for protecting vast tracts of south-east Queensland and northern NSW. Having been established in 2012 to revive Indigenous leadership, it employs five full-time rangers plus trainees to learn ancient skills, particularly the knowledge passed down the generations on cultural burning.
“Reviving cultural fire practice has enabled Aboriginal people to fulfil their custodial roles,” says BPAC General Manager Paul Dawson. “We’ve seen a lot more young Aboriginal people being able to reconnect with country and their community in a really meaningful way. They can look after and heal the landscape.”
BPAC continues to build valuable partnerships with local people and organisations. It helps graziers and other private landholders and works closely with councils and government agencies, including Western Downs and Toowoomba regional councils and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. On an escarpment near Toowoomba, the rangers recently completed a cultural burn for the Queensland Dept of Transport and Main Roads.
Paul says last summer’s fires helped trigger more interest in cultural fire practices. “A lot more doors are opening, and there’s a lot more goodwill about wanting to know how the old knowledge systems can work in helping look after the landscape and mitigate against the threat of wildfires,” he says. “This project shows how goodwill can turn into action on the ground.”
Help for future generations
One of BPAC’s young rangers is Jake Anderson. The 21-year-old from near Toowoomba joined the crew in 2019, having spent the previous few years unsure what he wanted to do with his life. “I did some labouring jobs, but I was bored,” he says. “I didn’t have much to do.”
As a young Indigenous man always interested in learning more about his culture, Jake has found his calling as a full-time BPAC ranger.
“My people have been doing this job for thousands and thousands of years,” he says. “I think it’s important for me to pick it up because I can learn everything about the country – grass types, soil types, all the trees – and hopefully pass it onto my kids and my family, and anyone who wants to learn.”
He admits he has learned a lot over the past year. “Before I became a ranger, I didn’t know much about country or fire and vegetation,” he says. “I’ve learnt so much. To learn about country, you have to spend time on country.”
BPAC cultural burns usually involve teams of six to eight rangers, trainees and volunteers. They conduct most burns in the afternoon – once the dew has evaporated – although they often need to go so deep into the bush they set up camp overnight.
“We burn a lot in winter because it’s cooler,” says Jake. “There’s still a lot of moisture in the ground so the fire won’t be too hot. Our fires are really cool fires. You can stand right next to them. You can touch the ash when the fire’s gone through and it’s nice and cool.
“When we clear up the land, we let the land breathe for the animals and let the vegetation come back. If we’ve got healthy grass, we have healthy animals. That’s what we eat, so we’re going to be healthy, too.”
He says he’s proud and excited to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, helping nurture and protect native lands. “It makes me feel really good to be able to put my little bit of work into helping country.”
Jake says he’s also looking forward to becoming an Indigenous leader and having the chance to pass on his knowledge. “When you help someone, you’re giving them a boost of confidence – you’re helping them out to learn about the country,” says Jake.
“We’ve got to help each other. We’ve got to lead each other in the right direction, so we’re all on the same page.”
Paul wants young rangers such as Jake to understand they are part of a larger movement. “We’re trying to effect change in a really broad sense – this is more than just a job,” he says.
“Our hope for our young Aboriginal rangers is that they become leaders for the next generation of young people coming through. They are at the forefront of the movement reviving Aboriginal cultural burning.”