By Rosie Goslett-King
Women Rangers Environmental Network Coordinator, WWF-Australia
As a descendant of the Budawang Yuin people growing up in the Blue Mountains, home to the Darug and Gandangara, my Country’s Fire Knowledge wasn’t passed down to me, nor are we allowed to continue this aspect of our culture here following colonisation. I didn’t understand the differences and complexities between the way Rural Fire Service burns and mob burns. I had previously feared fire. I had faced several emergency evacuations and choked on smoke for days. I’ve fled hazard reduction burns gone out of control. I’ve seen kilometers of bush decimated where thousands of animals died. Several of my mates lost their houses to fire, some for the second time in their life.
Years later, I now know cultural burns not only help us to reduce fuel loads, decrease risk of wildfire and protect canopy, but that fire can heal our landscape, control weeds, encourage new growth, germinate dormant seeds and provide refuges for people and animals during wildfires.
At the Firesticks Virtual Conference 2020, Shane Brown from the Queensland Fire Service shared how his approach to fire management has completely changed since being introduced to cultural fire. “I’ve not used a drip torch in the last three years after learning how to read the trees, soil and the time of year to burn. It’s been an amazing journey.”
The first time I heard about Firesticks was when I was a senior ranger of a mixed-gender all Indigenous Ranger team in the Illawarra. Uncle Nook (from Firesticks Alliance) took time to visit us and our site. He began to teach us about cultural burns and assess the benefits of applying fire to the Dharawal Country we were managing. Later, they [Firesticks Alliance] helped support me and another senior member of the crew to attend the Dhungala Firesticks workshop. Here we experienced our first cultural burn.
We burnt for healthy Country and felt our ancestors with us. It’s hard to put into words that feeling of pride and feeling them on Country with you.
Initially I was sad that we weren’t going to be healing Country at the 2020 Firesticks workshop. These workshops have been held annually since 2008 and have been developed over the years to strengthen culture and share the importance of getting traditional fire regimes back on Country. Yet, even with an entirely online conference I still got those deadly goosebumps in my 35 °C office in Wollongong as Carl Fourmile, a Yidinji man from the land of Gimuy in Far North Queensland welcomed us all to Country with a virtual smoking ceremony. With mob connected online from all across Australia, even the world, Carl Fourmile spoke and sang powerfully of the way that fire is a force for connection reminding us that, despite all that has been lost, “the connection to fire, mob and family through this ceremony will never go away.”
I was beyond excited during the forum to learn more about the continual advancements Firesticks have made in addressing the barriers stopping mob from conducting cultural burns, and their work to make it easier for teachers and schools to embed Traditional Knowledge in mainstream education through work on ‘The Living Knowledge Place’.
“It’s been amazing to see students get so deeply interested. They want to learn more. It builds connection and bridges reconciliation when they can see the depth of our knowledge - that isn’t just something in the past but is here in the present and into the future,” Victor Steffensen said.
Firesticks have been far from idle during COVID-19; they’ve also formed many new partnerships (including with WWF-Australia!), implemented leading comprehensive site management and evaluation techniques and created new permanent roles in their organisation. Through work with the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation, Firesticks are developing a cultural fire credits program which will help all Australians by reducing our national carbon footprint, reducing risk of wildfires, and all in a culturally and socially beneficial way. As one who personally faced the struggles attempting to get the training, permissions and resources needed for my team to burn, I was especially stoked to hear about them developing accredited diplomas for fire practitioners, with a Women’s Business unit!
Over two days we heard from mob, ranger crews, Elders, trainees, fire fighters, government agencies, policy makers, university professors, private landholders, scientists and much more, discuss and question all things cultural burns. As a relatively new employee to WWF I was proud to be part of such a large, influential organisation supporting the forum and practice, just one element of their commitment to Indigenous land and sea management.
At times I was disheartened by the same questions and insinuations I’ve heard for years; that the ‘Culture should be taken out of cultural burns’, and mob left out of our own practice. So it was exciting to hear my (non-Indigenous) manager speak up saying, “All of Australia can benefit from cultural fire but it won’t work if it’s not Indigenous-led. Partnerships have to be conducted in a meaningful way. That requires us to spend more time, build relationships and be genuine.”
As Indigenous Protected Areas account for Australia’s most biodiverse regions, it’s essential for conservation work to include and be led by Aboriginal people. I don’t mean led only for access, permission and respect, but to learn from them, to evaluate and implement land management techniques which have proved successful and which our country has evolved with for thousands of years.
As the Women Rangers Environmental Network (WREN) Coordinator at WWF I’m fortunate to hear from mob all across Australia. I’m hearing of the ever-growing evidence of Western science confirming the conservation benefits of cultural burns and Indigenous Knowledge. In southeast Australia where cultural burns have been extinguished for roughly 200 years, we know there’s huge pest issues - both animal and weed species, huge risk of wildfire and threats of extinction to some of our most iconic and key species. However, in the short time since cultural burns have been re-introduced on a small scale we already have significant proof of the benefits to biodiversity. For example, the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council ranger team recently conducted burns on their Country, and the next day potoroos (a threatened species), were spotted on site where they hadn’t been seen for six years!
In my role I’ve also discovered my previous 2:10 women to men ranger team was a pretty standard ratio, with women rangers making up about 26% of the Indigenous ranger workforce. While equality in general is certainly worth aiming for, in our conservation work its especially important as Indigenous culture directs knowledge essential for proper care of key environmental and cultural assets/sites differently for men and women working on Country. In fact, some of the most important areas of biodiversity (women-only sites) and Indigenous land management techniques are women’s business.
The Firesticks and WREN programs hold unifying values, both aiming to help identify and provide access to the tools, resources and cultural knowledge transfers and sharing opportunities that will support mob in enhancing their leadership impact and voice within and beyond their local communities. This includes having their voices heard by those who hold power and authority to make decisions that impact upon those on Country (e.g. local, state, and federal governments). Both organisations also seek to promote women’s role in cultural burns and conservation work as crucial elements. This was highlighted this year through the ‘Women in Fire’ panel that I was honored to be invited on, and which included a presentation by the legendary Vanessa Cavanaugh (who also presented in the recent Bushfire Royal Commission). Together we women spoke of the ways in which we influence and lead both within our communities, and across the broader Australian community (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), and the
enablers and barriers affecting our ability to influence the strategic directions of ranger and burn programs in Australia.
Thanks to Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Annenberg Foundation and generous WWF supporters around the world, WWF-Australia is working to support Indigenous Fire Management. Cultural burns help mitigate the risk of wildfire, provide huge benefits to conservation and land management and have immense social, cultural and spiritual importance for us Aboriginal people. However, there are many barriers stopping mob from carrying out this important work. Fire risk, land management/biodiversity, and the socio-economic disadvantages of mob are currently addressed nationally as separate, unrelated issues with limited budgets. But I urge us all to work together to see cultural burns re-established as a permanent, sustainable, landscape–scale practice in southeast Australia and continue with support across Australia as whole.