• Indigenous fire management practices include the work of the Return of the Firestick project. (NITV News)
An Aboriginal custom is spreading like wildfire in Victoria.
By
Laura Morelli

23 Jun 2017 - 4:54 PM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2017 - 6:33 PM

An old method is getting a new lease on life in the fight against wild bush fires.

Except in this case, it’s not wild, it’s effective fire management practices, including the work of the Return of the Firestick project.

Trent Nelson is a Yorta Yorta/Dja Dja Wurrung man and also Parks Victoria Team Leader, a role which sees him practice traditional burning with forest fire management.

A parliamentary inquiry has found that stronger punishments are needed for people who ignore total fire bans, and put Victoria at risk of potentially catastrophic bushfires.

It also said a risk-based approach to planned burns was needed and recommended the government fund a study into the effectiveness of Indigenous fire management practices, including the work of the Return of the Firestick project.

Burning in a traditional way

Trent says the traditional way is more beneficial for the land and its Traditional owners.

“There’s still a planned burn, but we don’t use drip torches or anything that’s going to be hazardous to the environment.”

Instead, they use fire sticks.

“This is like a grass tree stalk and we ignite it from a central fire point, so we start a traditional fire using sticks. That fire is then maintained throughout the burning,” Trent explained.

“Imagine dropping a pebble in the water – the fire works the same way the ripples round out. It’s a mosaic burn.”

 

Normally when a planned burn happens, every area of that burn is blackened out by fire. The leaves on the ground burn and the ground has ash all over it.

Trent says burning in a traditional way protects the habitat.

“The area is left unburnt so insects that grow and live within the bark can escape and are protected.
It protects the birds, species and habitats.”

This is the first year Dja Dja Wurrung has teamed up with Forest Fire Management Victoria, to implement the Return of the Firestick project, and Trent says it’s creating a different way to understand fire in the landscape.

“Fire is used on a regular basis and traditional burning is a way Traditional Owners can bring their own people back on country and heal themselves and others. Traditional burns are never going to exclude plan burning, it’s basically just complimenting them.

The report also found that a significant percentage of fires are caused by human activity either through deliberate actions or through accident or negligence. In many cases, these fires could be prevented.

It recommends that the government support more arson prevention programs in other bushfire-prone regions within Victoria.

Connection and caring for Country

Mick Bourke, Dja Dja Wurrung District Planner, Forest Fire Management Victoria says that for Aboriginal people, fire has always been an important way in which they connect to and care for Country.

“We don’t see fire on Country as a fearful force, we see it as a tool, if it is used right, a tool to heal and care for Country. In fact, some of our people have fire as part of their dreaming,” he said.

Mick works closely with fire behaviour experts and those who've faced many bushfires in the field, so, it's a case of sharing and bringing together knowledge.

"When we began this journey to return traditional fire to this landscape, our Elders stressed the importance of community safety - community is at the heart of their thinking and the thinking of Forest Fire Management Victoria too, so, there was always that natural connection there,” he said.

"In recently undertaking our first traditional burns in approximately 160 years here, we were able to do so within Victoria's 'Safer Together' planned burning program, which has its focus on reducing risk - the focus sits well with our Dja Dja Wurrung Elders, who have told us they are happy with our work, that approval means much to me, and the team I work with here."

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