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Indigenous cool burn a revelation
Vegetation Management Officer Phil Hawkey describes himself as “on a journey” as he increases his knowledge of Aboriginal traditional burning.
It began three years ago when Phil attended a traditional burning workshop in Orange, New South Wales.
“That was the lightbulb moment,” says Phil, “I tell people I’ve found something new that’s 30,000 years old. It’s done with method, with science, with great care,”
His knowledge took a giant step forward when he attended a traditional burning workshop in Cape York with Group Officer Len Timmins. Then in its ninth year, each workshop moves location. It means that, for his return to Cape York this month, there will be new lessons to learn amid different topography and vegetation.
All of Phil’s accumulated knowledge was shared at a cool burn at the Euroa Arboretum in May. The area was denuded just 20 years ago when it was the site housing bulldozers building the Hume Highway bypass. The land was then gifted to the community and is now a flat grassy woodland with a mix of local vegetation.
It’s Taungurung land with the clan bordering Mansfield, Broadford, Seymour and Kilmore. Three generations of the clan were in attendance at the Euroa cool burn which was lit by Elder Shane Monks.
“Shane was proud to talk about traditional burning coming back and CFA’s involvement,” says Phil. “I’m new to the knowledge but Shane is also on a journey of discovery. The knowledge and the will is there and it’s in the heart, but there’s been a lack of opportunity because only about 0.3 per cent of Victoria has been land owned by Aboriginal people. That means traditional burning practices haven’t been continuous in Victoria whereas in Cape York they have.”
Whether in northern Australia or Victoria, traditional burning principles remain the same.
Phil cites the Aboriginal saying that the country will tell you when it’s time to burn. The weather must be coolish with no wind, the bush material dry but not powdery with rain on the far horizon. About 12 to 15 per cent dryness is needed and a feel for moisture and atmospheric conditions.
While dryness can be calculated with a tool, of course, Victor Steffenson, the holder of fire knowledge in Cape York, simply put a match to the vegetation and declared, “Yes, this will burn.” Phil laughs as he recalls the utter simplicity of this method.
Natural features such as animal tracks or wet gullies prevent fire travelling and deep knowledge of the land means knowing where fire will go. A single point of ignition leads to a slow-moving fire that gives creatures such as geckos and insects time to move.
The restoration of grassland helps manage invasive species, returning vegetation such as wallaby and kangaroo grass that don’t have the same fire-carrying characteristics.
“The smoke should be white,” continues Phil, “which means there’s moisture in the ground to protect tubers and medicine food. Fuel reduction is a byproduct. It’s an ecological burn to heal country and reconnect with country. It creates fenceless paddocks to protect food but also to corral food such as kangaroo so they can be speared more easily.
“And the canopy must be protected at all costs. They don’t use tools but green leaves to put out an edge. It was much appreciated that Euroa brigade was in attendance at the arboretum burn but they weren’t needed.
“Euroa was a great example of how a cool burn behaves, looks and feels: it trickles through the landscape as water trickles. Little spiders ran up the trees. There was only a little bit of smoke and the fire stopped at a wheel track. The community got up close to fire.
“The fire was so cool that, moments after it had passed over the land, you could put your hand on the ground and feel it was quite cold.
“It’s magical to see it happen; a gentle little fire.”
Phil is fired up talking about Bruce Pascoe’s influential and award-winning book Dark Emu. (Bruce is a CFA member and will be featured talking about the ‘Fire’ chapter from Dark Emu in the next edition of Brigade magazine.)
“The book talks about carriages getting bogged because they were travelling through land that had been cultivated,” says Phil. “People talked about seas of yellow which were prevalent and that was the yam daisy, a tuber. Yet all that had been cultivated took just three years to destroy."
Manager for Community Safety Darren Viney was one of about 50 people from Narbethong to Stanley in attendance at Euroa. It was such an eye-opener for him that the region is funding Phil’s return trip to Cape York.
Euroa was a powerful example of CFA learning about traditional burning and incorporating it into our planned burning toolbox. Most importantly, however, we have done this in a respectful way alongside the Traditional Owners. Inclusiveness is vitally important to broaden membership of CFA, but we also had a lot to learn from Aboriginal people and their relationship with fire.
"I’m just sorry it took me nearly 60 years to start this journey,” says Phil. “There’s so much to learn.
“There are huge benefits and possibilities with getting people to better understand fire behaviour and there are also employment opportunities. Aboriginal people don’t fear fire. If we could get people in that mindset we could have better protection of Victoria by Victorians, because 70 per cent of the state is in private hands.
“There is good fire.”
But for now, for Phil, there’s his second trip to Cape York. Some 70 per cent of people in attendance at the first workshop he attended were Indigenous and the group camped beside the Bloomfield River and its crocodiles. This July, Shane Monks from the Taungurung clan will be right there beside Phil, burning and learning.