Australia bush fires ignite calls for indigenous fire practices

Indigenous Australians Oliver Costello of Firesticks Alliance (left) and Jacob Morris demonstrate cultural burning in a forest in Illaroo, New South Wales, Australia, on Jan 22, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - For tens of thousands of years, Australia's Aboriginal people have used fire to manage the landscape, and after a summer of raging bush fires, the practice is increasingly being seen as a way to help stem future disasters.

The unprecedented scale of the latest bush fire season - made worse by hotter and drier weather brought on by climate change - has prompted calls for greater integration of ancient land management techniques into bush fire prevention efforts.

Months of uncontrollable wildfires have scorched more than 10 million hectares in the country's east and south, killing at least 33 people and an estimated billion animals while destroying more than 2,500 homes.

Heavy rain along the east coast in recent days has extinguished most of the fires in the region but scientists say rising temperatures will see bush fires occur more frequently.

Aboriginals have long lit small, so-called "cool" blazes by hand and closely monitored the flames to ensure only undergrowth is burned.

The fires are controlled so they move slowly and preserve the tree canopy, allowing animals a route to escape.

Known as "cultural burning", it clears pathways through the scrub, promotes new growth in plants, and rids the land of undergrowth that acts as fuel in bush fires.

Firefighters across Australia undertake their own hazard reduction burning to reduce the likelihood of major fires, typically using hand-held drip torches that release flaming fuel onto the ground, or helicopters that drop flammable materials from above.

But longer bush fire seasons brought by a warming climate are shrinking the window in the cooler months to carry out hazard reduction work.

These burns also have the potential to morph into out-of-control blazes, and doubt has been cast over their effectiveness in preventing larger fires.

"The fuel loads are so high they're creating their own fire storms," said Mr Terry Hill, head of Merrimans Local Aboriginal Lands Council in New South Wales, the state hardest hit by the recent fires.

"Planes and helicopters with buckets of water are not going to put these fires out. We've got to look at the prevention side of things," he told AFP.

Though fire services around the country already collaborate with indigenous Australians on cultural burns, the ancient practice is employed on a much larger scale in the Northern Territory than anywhere else.

Mr Dean Yibarbuk, chair of Warddeken Land Management, helped formalise an indigenous fire prevention programme in a remote part of the state's Arnhem Land more than a decade ago.

Colonisation had forced many Aboriginal communities from their homes, he explained, meaning Warddeken's 14,000 sq km of indigenous protected land was being neglected.

Warddeken teamed up with scientists to combine ancient and modern fire practices in a comprehensive initiative that now employs up to 150 indigenous rangers and includes measures such as feral animal control and cultural heritage protection.

"We changed the whole system by putting people back on the landscape," Mr Yibarbuk told AFP.

"Not only just ourselves but the whole of north Australia took part in it, because they too were struggling to see the country being burned."

The schemes have had the added benefit of cutting carbon emissions - allowing indigenous communities to sell the resulting carbon credits and pump those funds back into community projects.

Mr Shaun Ansell, the non-indigenous chief executive of Warddeken, said the rest of Australia could learn lessons from the north but he cautioned against simplistic attempts to replicate the approach across the giant country.

"The landscapes in northern Australia are much vaster and much less densely populated, which means the risk to infrastructure and burning down people's houses in many places in northern Australia is much lower," he told AFP.

Prof David Bowman, a bush fire expert and professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, said a large-scale return to traditional fire management would not be possible in southern Australia because non-indigenous people now occupy most of the land.

"It can't be the only solution to the bush fire problem but it has a really good role as part of reconciliation to respect and honour the ancient tradition of indigenous fire practice," he said.

But Mr Yibarbuk called on the government to "start listening" to those urging more widely integrate cultural burning into bush fire prevention.

"They need to start engaging with us from this end," he said.

"When we hear what's happened down in southern areas it's quite devastating. We want to see the fire managed according to the land, according to the traditional people of that area."

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