Victor Steffensen was a teenager when he first encountered wild fire, in his home community near Cairns.
“One of the elders picked up a piece of bark and lit it up, and danced it through the grassland. He showed me my first fire, which didn’t harm a thing.”
For the past twenty years the he has been teaching communities traditional practices of fire management – ones that look vastly different to those practised by state fire authorities.
Speaking on Insight this week, he says there needs to be a “cultural shift” in Australia’s relationship with fire: “we need to evolve our country with fire,” he says.
“We’ve got sick country – there’s no trees, it’s full of weeds, there are no grasses, no native species. We need to teach people how to burn, to bring that country back to health.”
And the experts agree: there is much to be learnt from traditional methods that will reduce the frequency of major fire events and – almost ironically – keep the country cool while the climate heats up.
Indigenous burning: fire circles and cool fire
Indigenous burning is very distinctive, in purpose and method.
While Western cultures tend to focus on aftermath, its focus is on prevention: managing fuel loads and reading the land to ensure flora and fauna stay healthy.
Each year rural fire services across the country carry out vast swathes of backburning and hazard reduction, but Steffensen says this is entirely the wrong approach: the fires tend to burn inward, creating an inferno from which animals cannot escape and a heat so strong it burns both undergrowth and canopy.
Indigenous burning, on the other hand, is cool: temperatures remain low so flames never reach the canopy.
“The canopy is whole other world,” says Steffensen. “The canopy is so important to us because that's the life of the flowers, the fruits, the birds, the animals … that top canopy is very, very sacred and the simple rule is that it never burns.
“If you burn the canopy, then you have the wrong fire. Fire [should] behave like water, trickling through the country [so] it doesn't burn everything.”
Fire should behave like water, trickling through the country.
Traditional burns are also started from ‘fire circles’ and patterns that allow the fire to spread out in a 360 degrees radius. This allows animals to escape as they smell the smoke and keeps temperatures down, with only one fire front to manage.
Steffensen says this kind of fire knowledge has been lost over the centuries, both as a result of colonisation – the diffusion of knowledge throughout the stolen generations, the introduction of non-native weeds that spring up when the canopy burns – and of our migration towards cities. Even European pastoralists knew how to manage the land with fire, he says.
Through his teaching practices – at both community and state government level – he is hoping to educate people on the need for more fire in the land and shift the relationship from one of fear, to one of appreciation.
“We're educating the community and involving the residents and involving communities in understanding fire. Not in its vicious form or its threatening form but in its nurturing [mode].”
Too many fire agencies and regulations
Not all are willing to take on this knowledge, however.
While Steffensen has worked with branches of local, state and federal government, the landscape of fire management is disjointed.
“The biggest problem in this country is that everyone’s confused,” he says.
“We live in a country that needs fire and what has happened is that we've stopped evolving with fire. Our fire culture in Australia is totally flawed … We've backed up to a point of regulations, land tenures. We have so many environmental agencies dealing with fire in this country and none of them working together.
“They all have different fire regimes. It really is a big mess.”
We live in a country that needs fire and what has happened is that we've stopped evolving with fire.
John Schauble has been a firefighter for 30 years and is a strategic advisor to Emergency Management Victoria. He agrees that the regulatory environment, and consensus about how to manage fire on the land, is greatly varied.
“We have multiple agencies with control over various bits of landscape and if you look at any piece of landscape anywhere in Australia, you move from one agency to the next agency to the next agency into private property,” he says.
“So you have a variety of land managers all with competing interests in how they manage fire in that landscape.”
Steffenen’s view is to empower local communities with traditional fire knowledge so those affected by major bushfires most, can mitigate them best.
Justin Leonard, lead researcher in Urban Bushfire Design at the CSIRO, agrees that we need to expand our concept of the ‘backyard’ to include bush and vegetation outside the fence.
People who enjoy living near areas of wilderness also need to take some responsibility for it.
“There’s a way to live in every part of the landscape,” he says, “and it's this integrated way of understanding of what fire is in that location, how to find the balance and manage the bush in the right way, and that easily unlocks how you build and live and behave and understand.”
A new generation of firefighters and step forward for reconciliation
Steffensen believes this traditional knowledge can help produce a new generation of firefighters: ones that know, and can read, the land.
“The future firefighter is not the firefighter we see today – he will evolve into a fire manager,” says Steffensen.
“He’s the guy who knows the animals, when they’re breeding, the ecosystems, what the country needs in order to heal, when it gets sick from introduced species, when it has been caned from hot burns in the past.”
This will also have a major impact on the way the country looks, practicing fire management that keeps the canopy intact and the fuel loads low.
“The bush would be a lot clearer from head height,” says Steffensen. “It would be green, it would be clean right through and there'd be a rich green canopy along the top as well. So the country would look quite beautiful.”
He also points out the importance of the canopy for protecting the country from climate change’s rising temperatures. “Our hot country needs shade,” he says, “and wildfires take share away. The canopy is the coping potential of our country in extreme heat.”
“We’re giving the country the least possible change to survive climate change.”
It is, finally, a further step on the path to reconciliation too. Much traditional knowledge about fire management has died out with Indigenous clans over the past few centuries, and with each lesson Steffensen is regrowing it from the ashes.
“This is a really important part of reviving culture and feeling proud about contributing to this nation's future,” he says.
Insight: Line of Fire | Tuesday, 8:30pm, SBS