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How 'Smart' Indigenous Fire Management Could Help The Bushfire Crisis

Governments would be "smart" to use traditional Indigenous cultural burning techniques to reduce bushfire risk, experts say, with thousands of years of knowledge potentially a key to mitigating danger.

Politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have backed Indigenous fire management as a tool in the firefighting arsenal which should be better wielded.

"We must learn from the Indigenous Australians and their ancient practices and how to improve our resilience to these threats. They know more about this than we ever could and they stand ready to work closely with us," Morrison said last month.

Indigenous fire management techniques are gaining political support. Image: KJ Rangers

Liberal senator Jim Molan said this week the federal government was "very keen to finance" such schemes, while NSW minister Andrew Constance -- from fire-ravaged Bega -- said it should be "front and centre" in bushfire mitigation.

What is Indigenous fire management?

"Cultural burning is prescribed burning," Oliver Costello, a Bundjalung man and CEO of the Firesticks Alliance, which promotes the traditional practice, told 10 daily.

"We look at the indicators, the weather, the vegetation, then say 'we’ll do it at this time under these conditions'."

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In one way, it's similar to hazard reduction burns of the type state fire agencies regularly carry out -- but with important differences.

"Cultural burning can include burning or prevention of burning of country for the health of particular plants and animals," Firesticks said on its website.

Broadly, fires are carefully set according to hyper-local knowledge of each area -- wind, terrain, types of vegetation, and knowing how previous fires have burnt.

Indigenous people have been practising the techniques for millennia. Image: KJ Rangers

A 2018 CSIRO report stated cultural burning "has been crucial to the successful management of Australian landscapes for millennia".

The Commonwealth science agency is running fire programs with Indigenous communities in Western Australia, while last year the Victorian government reintroduced cultural burning in central parts of the state for the first time in 200 years.

The NSW Rural Fire Service told 10 daily it supported such burning on cultural grounds, and also said that it "may also act to reduce bush fire risk to communities."

"The NSW RFS is also working on incorporating cultural burns in the new bush fire risk planning model," a spokesperson said.

Reducing fuel load is just one part of cultural burning, Costello said. The fire is also used to help clear older vegetation and make way for new trees and grasses, providing homes and food for animals.

Practitioners talk about burning in 'mosaic' or 'patchwork' patterns, like squares on a chessboard. This aims to promote biodiversity, ensuring a range of age, size and maturity of plants in each area. This so-called 'fine-scale' burning stands in contrast to standard hazard reduction burns, which often involves burning broad expanses of land.

Left: regrowth from several small and low intensity burns. Right: the damage from one high intensity fire. Image: 10 Deserts

"Having diversity of habitat means animals can move through and always have food, and there's also less fuel for fires because you're keeping it clean," Costello said.

Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen said on the ABC's 'Q+A' this week it was "frustrating" the techniques were not more widely used.

"We need to start training people to read landscapes, understand the soils, understand when to burn the right ecosystems at the right time," he said.

"There’s an intelligence there and we have all this information for looking after the environment, and we’re not being tapped into."

How does it work?

Cultural burns are carried out with traditional techniques. Instead of 'drip torch' tools used by firefighters to light long lines of fire, Costello said cultural fires are often started like 'spot' fires.

"We light one fire and see how that behaves. That might do the job, we might not need more. It's not linear lines of fire," Costello said.

"We might drag a bit of bark, lit with fire, through the grass so the fire is spotty. We try to keep the fires cool, which improves ground covers and protects the tree canopy."

10 Deserts rangers on the job. Image: Gareth Catt

Gareth Catt, regional fire management coordinator for 10 Deserts -- a group working to build capacity for Indigenous groups to maintain country through traditional practices -- explained cultural fires burned 'cool' rather than 'hot'. While 10 Deserts uses traditional techniques, its rangers also use helicopters and vehicles to reach rugged terrain.

"A cool fire moves gently through the landscape," Catt told 10 daily.

"It leaves more detail in the landscape, features where wildlife can shelter. It won't burn through the tree canopy."

Costello said burning in this way had fewer negative impacts, like thick smoke choking people nearby, and allowed animals to escape the oncoming fire.

Left: a sandhill bloodwood burnt by wildfire. Right: a coolabah in an area carefully burnt by Indigenous rangers. Image: 10 Deserts

The RFS said it assists in cultural burning support, by providing legislative advice, firefighting equipment, and support crews if needed.

"The intent of this assistance is that the actual implementation of the burn is conducted and/or led by Indigenous practitioners," a spokesperson said.

"The NSW RFS assisted with at least 10 cultural burns in 2018/19 and has a number of burns planned for 2019/20 when conditions are suitable."

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David Bowman, a professor of fire science at the University of Tasmania, said Indigenous practices had a place in Australia's fire response.

"Clearly we have a problem, and we need alternatives. Going back to Indigenous fire management is a smart starting point," he told 10 daily.

"It generates a different fire behaviour than a big block of vegetation that's all the one age... we can be inspired by that tradition and use it at a local scale."

What's the difference to hazard reduction burns?

For reducing fuel load on the ground, and lessening the danger of fires, the two are very similar -- but that's only one outcome of cultural burning.

Cultural burning could be used alongside contemporary firefighting techniques. Image: Getty

"There's technical knowledge about how you apply the fire, but there's cultural knowledge too. For instance, you can't burn some else's country," Costello said.

You can't just teach agencies how to burn our way. You've got to build community, get agencies to support the cultural management."

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Catt said 10 Deserts worked to recognise and promote those important cultural aspects.

A cultural burn in WA. Image: 10 Deserts Project

"For Indigenous people, fire isn't just management in a western sense. It’s connecting to country, engaging with environment. It's a physical practice but there's more to it," he said.

"It's replicating the way people interacted with the land for thousands of years. Local solutions are important, people who know the landscape. It's talking to the older people, the last to live in that country. Their fire use and knowledge is more important than anything we can come up with."

Where to now?

PM Morrison has raised Indigenous practices as a factor to consider in Australia's bushfire responses, saying in December that experts should consider "what Indigenous practices are in containing and dealing with fire risk".

Two separate inquiries in federal parliament -- one into bushfire responses, another into vegetation management -- will consider the Indigenous practices.

Morrison has backed Indigenous techniques in the bushfire response. Image: AAP

Costello said Firesticks stood ready to expand its program and train people nationwide.

"Given the tragedies we’ve had, people are desperate to see change. We’re offering a change back, actually, because it’s not a new idea. It's something that's been around for thousands of years," he said.