Living in Eurobodalla: Healing with good fire

Published: 2 March 2023

It’s fair to say we’ve all learnt something about fire since the Black Summer, rendering our beloved shire charred, black and lifeless. Maybe now the time is right to learn some more - from Eurobodalla’s local Indigenous Australians who have been using fire in a positive way here for millennia.

“Cultural burning uses good fire. It’s good for the land and good for Aboriginal recognition,” says Andrew White of the Batemans Bay Local Aboriginal Land Council.

“People should not feel something bad is going to happen every time they see smoke. Learning how good fire heals the land will help heal these people too.”

Council has used burning to promote the health of Themeda – kangaroo grass – ecosystems at Kianga since 2012, with help from the Rural Fire Service who, until 2018, were the only service available.

However, Indigenous Australians have been burning the distinctive red tussocks that blanket the Kianga headlands for thousands of years. In late 2022 we were able to employ Andrew and his team of rangers to undertake cultural burning on this public land.

“Themeda is a low fertility grass and needs burning to thrive. We wait for the seed to drop, wait a month for the seeds to penetrate down through the soil litter, then we burn. The fire suppresses competitor plants and stimulates germination and these headlands need burning every few years,” says Andrew.

Andrew highlights the lack of cultural components in standard hazard reduction compared to traditional cool-burns.

“Hazard reduction is all about reducing fuel load, a certain amount of area at a specific time. Our traditional burns include environmental, cultural and healing practices – they are also a community gathering,” says Andrew.

Cultural burning begins with a circle burn, a single ignition point and a low flame – no more than two feet – that slowly moves outward, allowing animals plenty of time to seek shelter or get away. Deciding on the when and where relies on a combination of traditional lore, current indicators and personal experience.

“A lot of this knowledge is passed down through Elders,” says Andrew, “all the while gaining confidence in the Country’s indicators – what’s flowered, what’s dropped seed, which animals are mating.”

Some of Andrew’s team have been working with him for eight years, while newer members are rapidly gaining experience.

“We had three juniors come on board last year. They have eight or nine fires under their belt already. They’ve learnt a lot – not just cultural things but self-determination too – it’s character building.”

The cultural burn at Kianga was an opportunity for Andrew to share knowledge gained over ten years of cultural burning with the Wagonga Mob responsible for Kianga Country. He also brings regulatory benefits; Batemans Bay’s is one of the few Aboriginal land councils in NSW insured to put “fire on the ground”.

As cultural burning becomes understood, even embraced, by non-Indigenous Australia and its governing agencies, there is a push to utilise these techniques more broadly.

Our natural resources coordinator Heidi Thomson was at the Kianga cultural burn and said Council uses flora transects to compare pre and post burn species diversity as part of long-term monitoring. Heidi is impressed by the burn

“You can touch the ground afterward, the soil is still moist,” says Heidi.

“That means soil life survives, which lets the country bounce back. Even the small vertebrates were calm – frogs easily hopped out of the way of the flames and clumping plants like Lomandra were intact at their base, providing a refuge for all kinds of animals.”

Heidi says Council intends to pursue further opportunities as a part of Council’s land management into the future.

“If conditions are right, we’ll see about cultural burns at the other two Kianga headlands. I see this as a way to promote another type of sustainable land management more widely, spreading knowledge and experience to other land councils so we end up with crews up and down the coast with resources to undertake cultural burns on our land and others.”

Currently there is large and increasing demand by property owners for cultural burning on their farms. Andrew says there’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape to wade through to allow this to happen.

“Agencies are thinking from inside the box, not out of the box,” he said.

“We use our thinking as a circle – like the fire itself.”

This story was first published in Council’s quarterly newsletter for residents, Living in Eurobodalla. A printed edition is delivered to the shire’s 26,000 households. You can also read an online version.

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