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Fighting fires on cultural land in partnership with traditional owners

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Today, CFA marks one year since fires impacted the Budj Bim cultural landscape on 30 December 2019 and reflects on the integral community consultation that led to a successful fire firefight. 

Fighting fires on cultural land in partnership with traditional owners

The importance of consultation and engagement with traditional owners on fire management was no more apparent than when fires ignited within the Budj Bim cultural landscape late last year. 

Budj Bim cultural landscape is comprised of a dormant volcano and 6600-year-old aquaculture systems used to harvest eels, located in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people in South West Victoria. 

It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in August 2019; the first Indigenous site to be listed exclusively for its cultural significance. 

Due to this, CFA and partner agencies realised fighting a fire in that area would prove challenging and we needed to develop a plan to protect the cultural land. 

Therefore, ahead of last year’s fire season, fire management agencies participated in a range of engagement sessions with traditional owners and the community relating to firefighting strategies and tactics. 

This consultation enlightened incident management personnel of the rich cultural values and firefighting limitations to ensure effective strategies could be planned prior to any potential fire event. 

CFA District 5 Assistant Chief Fire Officer (ACFO) Richard Bourke said when lightning ignited fires across the cultural landscape on 30 December 2019, all CFA regional and senior volunteer leaders were aware of the action plan. 

“Every year we conduct liaison meetings with FFMVic and that particular November we chose Budj Bim as a tactical exercise with our members,” ACFO Bourke said. 

“We looked at all the potential issues with a particularly new overview with consideration of Budj Bim’s cultural heritage listing. 

“There are physical limitations such as the extreme volcanic rocky terrain and limited established track access, as well as cultural considerations such as the historical Indigenous heritage and connection with the land.” 

The fires burned from 30 December 2019 to 4 January 2020 and had impacted 6000-hectares of the site. 

Jagged rocks could puncture vehicle tyres and traditional firefighting methods could risk damaging the cultural heritage. 

CFA and FFMVic’s low impact firefighting strategy revolved around limiting ground disturbance and consistent communication from the Incident Management Team to the ground in partnership with traditional owners. 

Firefighters would construct control lines using hose lays, retardant lines and from burning existing tracks on grassland interface. We also required a lot of water aircraft to help extinguish the fire. 

“All firefighters understood why our strategy was in place and it was encouraging that our members had informative conversations with their communities about how our strategies would help protect the land should a fire break out.  

“We have formed a good relationship with the traditional landowners and local communities which will continue to grow stronger as we continue our important work together in the future,” ACFO Bourke said. 

FFMVic District Manager Mark Mellington said fires within the Budj Bim National Park will always be challenging due to the largely inaccessible nature of the rocky landscape.  

“We’re continuing to review our fire management processes so we can identify new and innovative ways to achieve better outcomes for an area of rich cultural value,” he said.   Program Manager, Gunditj Mirring TOAC Denis Rose added “we acknowledge the great efforts of those involved in the firefighting response, who took into account the special cultural heritage requirements of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Budj Bim landscape”.