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Indigenous leaders say Australia’s bushfire crisis shows approach to land management failing

by Marian Faa

Indigenous leaders, who have been warning about a bushfire crisis for years, are calling for a radical change to how land is managed as Australia faces some of its worst bushfire conditions on record.

When Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen walked outside his house in far north Queensland this week he felt a sense of dread.

“I look into the sky and I see the misty haze coming up from down south all through the landscape,” he said.

“You can see the ashes on the air, landing on the trees up here and it’s like a mourning for the country.

A year ago, while conducting workshops in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, Mr Steffensen predicted the crisis that has now killed three people and destroyed at least 25 homes.

“I was looking at it and thinking ‘this is a timebomb, it’s going to go off’,” he said.

Fear of fire at the heart of ‘mismanagement’

Mr Steffensen has been teaching traditional Indigenous burning practices for the past two decades.

He said this week’s bushfire crisis sent a clear message to politicians that current land management practices are not working.

“We can’t keep doing this,” he said.

“It’s really frustrating to see country get torched like that when you know they’re not doing anything about it.”

Mr Steffensen said the dangerous conditions resulted from a build up of fuel loads and decades of mismanagement.

“People are too scared to burn because of how dry it is,” he said.

“There are grasses that are up to the roof and landscapes that have no vegetation except for large amounts of rubbish.

“The bottom line is that we need to start looking after the landscape.”

New sector to draw on ancient methods

Mr Steffensen called on the State and Federal Governments to establish a new workforce dedicated to managing land and fuel loads through the use of traditional ecological knowledge.

“We need a whole other division of people out there looking after the land,” he said.

“A fire practitioner of the future is going to be full time.”

Mr Steffensen said the new sector could employ Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and exist in conjunction with emergency fire services.

“We need our firefighters, we praise our firefighters that help those communities and they’re needed into the future,” he said.

“But we also need the land managers, we can’t just throw it all on the weight of one department”

University of Tasmania professor of fire science David Bowman said Indigenous fire practices could play an important role in land management systems of the future, but they would need to be adapted to suit the current times.

“So many changes have occurred since 1975 … but we can take that knowledge and we can adapt it to suit our times,” he said.

“The key message is that we can take the idea of humans using fire skilfully — we can manipulate vegetation, we can reduce fuel loads, we can sharpen fire boundaries.”

What do Indigenous fire practices involve?

Mr Steffensen said burning was crucial way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cared for the land.

He said it involved learning to read trees, soil types, wind conditions and developing an “intimate” relationship with the landscape.

“It’s a whole complex system. I’m not saying that it’s all easy.

“But what I am saying is that if they were all trained and we had a lot more of those practitioners out there we would find that we can burn a lot more country.”

He said incorporating traditional burning practices into mainstream systems would result in more regular burning and reduced fuel loads.

Mr Steffensen said it also involved changing attitudes towards fire.

“This is a really sensitive issue,” he said.

“For those who have gone through a trauma through these fires, it is very sensitive. I want to really acknowledge that. But at the end of the day I don’t see fear — I see an opportunity.

“I see an opportunity for people to see hope, to have workshops to go to, to see smoke and know that it’s a good fire that people are out on the land doing something about it.”