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Tapping into 60,000 years to mitigate bushfire risk

During the most recent episode of FWPA’s WoodChat podcast series, which focused on various work happening across Australia with the goal of mitigating the impacts of future bushfire events under a changing climate, listeners heard from four interviewees, including Rodney Carter, CEO of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation.

During the discussion, Mr Carter discussed the corporation’s focus on, and promotion of, traditional cultural and cool-burning practices as an effective means of mitigating bushfire risk – a proven approach dating back tens of thousands of years.

The corporation is a representative body for Dja Dja Wurrung People, Traditional Owners of large areas of land in central Victoria.

In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung people achieved Registered Aboriginal Party status, and signed a Recognition and Settlement Agreement with the Victorian State Government – a unique, first-of-its-kind formal agreement.

“This agreement is so important because it frees our people from various restrictions described in Victorian acts, legislations and regulations, allowing us to be able to enjoy being at country as descendants of our ancestors who created and managed the landscape,” Mr Carter said.

“Our objective is to ensure our presence at country is purposeful, by working with other stakeholders in taking the necessary steps to help protect the landscape and keep it healthy.”

In terms of land management, particularly helping to mitigate the escalating risk of bushfires, the corporation advocates for the use of traditional land management practices, such as cool burning.

“We describe our fire as Djandak Wi. Bringing these types of cooler fires back to country on a regular basis can provide a highly effective land management tool to protect the landscape from larger fires that run the risk of burning out of control,” he said.

“The challenges we have faced have included the recent absence of our people and inability to help create and manage a healthy landscape. For the past 200 years, we’ve been displaced and unable to perform our traditional roles as practitioners when it comes to making the land well enough to effectively give fire.”

According to the corporation, there are two key elements driving the large-scale bushfires we have seen in recent years. The modified landscape and vegetation structures, and the general decline in the health of the land, make it harder for traditional owners to ‘bring fire’. As a result, when we enter seasonally drier periods with high temperatures and strong winds, fire can have hugely damaging impacts, as witnessed during the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019-20.

“Our challenge going forward is to think about how we can progressively remodify the landscape to make it suitable for consistently starting to purposefully and regularly bring cooler fires back to country, for bushfire mitigation,” Mr Carter said.

Taking forests as an example, cool burning breaks up the connectivity between flammable fuel loads by burning patches of land. Where the fuel loads are connected, fire can travel more easily and can soon burn out of control. The presence of burned patches prevents this happening.

If this practice is undertaken consistently over time, fires can no longer travel as easily and are less likely to spread across large areas.

“Before European settlement, my ancestors saw cooler fires as a positive, helpful and welcome tool, essential for effective land management. However, changes to the landscape during the past 200 years have meant those fires are not able to complete the same sorts of cycles they would have been able to in the past, due to the decrease in the health of the land,” Mr Carter said.

“Basically, it’s all about pre-emptively giving fire to country as a land management tool, so that in the face of an uncertain future, fires are likely to be smaller and more contained, helping to protect forests, land, people and properties.

“It will likely take decades, if not centuries, to create some greater effect on country using cool burning techniques, but it’s important that we start taking the steps now, because we understand that fire is and always has been an important part of Australian landscape.”

The Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation recently launched its Forest Gardening Strategy, which focuses on caring for its trees and forests. Having more trees and bigger forest canopies that provide shelter for animals and plants is one effective means of helping to heal country and make it more conducive to successful cool burning practices in the future.

“The forestry industry and other modern landscape stakeholders have all been very receptive to our suggestions about what could and should happen,” Mr Carter said.

“There seems to be widespread agreement that if we do some really sensible preparatory work founded on the ancient knowledge of my ancestors, we can gradually remodify the landscape so that it’s healthier and more conducive to Djandak Wi.

“A healthy landscape will bring us all sorts of gifts, including good quality timber for a variety of uses. And if we have a recipe that was successful for achieving this for 60,000 years, it must be good!

“Our ancestors’ knowledge of cool burning and other traditional land management practices are highly applicable to the unique Australian landscape. By taking an active role in helping to manage the landscape of modern Australia, we can use ancient knowledge, and reactivate it, fit for now.”

Posted Date: April 10, 2023

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