It was a cool and frosty Burrugin day (winter in the European calendar) as I followed my D’harawal Uncle through the damp bush and we talked about the plants, how they grow, how they provide and how we can look after them. He points out the leaf litter, fallen bark and branches creating a thick bed on the forest floor. This is dangerous he says. This is what wild fires are made of.
My Uncle and other Elders have predicted the huge wild fires that have ravaged Australia this summer for years, even decades. In our eyes, Country has not been cared for and this total devastation is the result.
As Aboriginal people, we are the oldest, most sustainable civilisation in human existence. We have cared for Country for thousands and thousands of years using developed and refined technologies like that of fire science. Current Western fire practices such as back burning and hazard reduction burns are based on observations of Aboriginal people applying fire technologies to our Country. But they are only observations; naïvely interpreted, and do not encompass the holistic and complex connection to ancient knowledges and land management that Aboriginal fire practices are grounded in.
Our fire management techniques highlight the essential differences in our priorities and perspectives as people. Current Western fire management techniques are implemented to protect assets such as roads, houses and buildings from the threat of fire resulting in the majority of bushland being untouched by fire for decades, leaving behind years and years of ferociously combustible leaf litter.
This form of fire management protects assets and money but not the very elements of nature that sustain us and keep us alive. We cannot eat, breathe or drink money yet modern Western science diverts all of its efforts into protecting it?
Aboriginal fire technology is based around the notion of soft, cool burns that not only reduce the combustible materials on the forest floor but also nurture and encourage the growth of a greater diversity of plant species.
The arrangement and slow, careful pace of cultural burning allows time and space for animal species to flee the area. In fact, there is no aspect of life that is not taken into consideration in the application of fire by Indigenous peoples; we see ourselves and the surrounding Country as an intricately interwoven web, all aspects connected and dependant on each other for survival, with the underlying essential belief that if we look after Country, Country will look after us.
It is devastating to open our eyes now in the apocalyptically, smoky, red haze of recent fires and realise that this is now considered cutting edge thinking; that our very survival and existence depends on whether or not a ‘new’ science will be implemented?
Aboriginal families and communities have been pleading with government bodies for years to allow cultural burning on what is now neglected, and very dangerous Country, but no one has been listening. Some private land owners have come forth since the devastating fires and told their stories of bringing in knowledge holders to burn on their properties prior to the outbreak of the fires, and not surprisingly, the wild fires completely avoided their properties.
These stories have gained momentum internationally and in recent weeks Aboriginal knowledge holders have been contacted by people all over the world to talk about our fire knowledge and practices and how these devastating wild fires could have been avoided had we been able to care for Country. We have even been asked to implement our cultural burning in other countries, but still, will we be allowed to do it here?
The future is uncertain, as is our precarious position living within this beautiful Country. This knowledge isn’t cutting edge and it should all be an everyday part of living here in Australia. The only thing cutting edge about it should be that now, hopefully, the world will finally listen.