We have all been swallowed up in the disastrous National Bushfires over the past fortnight and it has been heartwarming to see how many have contributed so much to the physical, emotional and psychological damage caused to those at the coalface – literally. We are still the lucky country held together by our great connection to place, no matter where we have come from.

Life Again doesn’t want to add anything to the short-term damage and reparation, particularly as so many voices are being heard throughout the nation, through media, government, story telling and heroics. We would rather look at “where next?”  Of course the issue of Climate Change and its ramifications (or not) is well and truly on the national agenda, but we will not enter any political debate as to what, when, where, how much, how quickly, renewable options etc. A little knowledge is dangerous! 

The simple fact is there is a non-deniable truth about the condition we have allowed our forests to get into which creates a conflagration such as we have seen. Every Royal Commission or major review post a major fire event will give us the solution to minimise the damage next time, but like Nero, we all stand by and watch as our cities, towns, villages, houses, and people burn. Vested interests take over and it all falls into the “too hard” file.

we all stand by and watch as our cities, towns, villages, houses, and people burn.

Many years ago my great friend, footy teammate, Richmond legend and deep thinker Barry Richardson used to spend time with me at a pretty spot on the bend of the Lightning Creek just south of Mitta Mitta on the Omeo highway. He was showing me his country. Timber country. His father-in-law Jack Dunstan logged this country. Barry was a man of the earth. After the recent fire he told me one of Jack’s stories. It made sense. I asked him to write it down.  

“My late father-in-law, Jack Dunstan, a wise and pragmatic person, was a “Timber Man”. He and his brothers logged hardwood (Mountain Ash) on the Omeo side of Mt. Wills. Jack in fact surveyed the road between Mitta Mitta and Omeo, with Mt. Wills currently in the throes of the devastating fires we are experiencing.

Some 30 years ago, I drove Jack back to the areas that he had previously logged, along the Omeo Highway up to Mt. Wills. Now I don’t propose to be yet another arm chair expert on Forest management or Fire prevention, but Jack’s pragmatic and prophetic views stay with me at this awful time of fire carnage. 

Large areas of Native Hardwood Forest had become part of expanding logging bans and as we drove these sections of forest they had become an overgrown mess, with blackberries running riot and forest litter knee deep. I remember Jack saying “This will incinerate out of control one day, destroy a usable resource, kill all the animals and be good for nothing.” 

We drove further upwards and the forest became a thing of beauty, with tall straight trees and green, grassy undergrowth. Jack informed me that it was an area that they had logged some 30 years earlier. They would take the usable timber, and then use a bulldozer to push the remnants into a pile before burning it during the winter months.

Within a couple of months he said the new growth would come up “like wheat”, with the strong shoots growing to the sun and the weaker ones dying off.

new growth would come up “like wheat”, with the strong shoots growing to the sun and the weaker ones dying off.

Now Jack no doubt had some bias against the “Greenies”, as they were known then also, but his views were certainly convincing, and his experience of fifty years in the Bush, in so many ways coincided with some 40000 years of Aboriginal evolution.”

It’s Barry’s reflection on the management of the land over centuries – 70000 years and counting – that really interested me. It’s only part of the solution but it’s a part that fits in with Life Again’s commitment to “No Change Without Understanding.”

By learning how our first people skilfully managed their land we can begin to understand how to take a preventative approach to the land, particularly in regard to fire management. We must respect them, respect their knowledge, listen to them, and deepen our connection to them.

In simple terms the Aboriginals lit “cool” fires in targeted areas during the early dry season between March and July, reducing fuel loads and creating fire breaks. It helped them facilitate hunting as well as changing the composition of plant and animal species in an area. Imagine how this could be used today despite the complexity of infrastructure, houses, fences, outbuildings, and power lines?

It gets down to hazard reduction. As Nick Cater of the Menzies Research Centre recently wrote in The Australian, January 20th, “Humans once tamed the wilderness. Today it tames us, restricting our ability not only to extract resources but also to resist its fury.” Since “the 70’s…the wilderness was declared pristine, visitors were made to feel unwelcome and conservation areas were sanctified as places untouched by the human stain.” Men like Jack Dunstan may have been the maligned loggers but in their commercial way they had a commitment to the land that had a similar effect to the way the aborigines managed it.

Humans once tamed the wilderness. Today it tames us

Now Jack no doubt had some bias against the “Greenies”, as they were known then also, but his views were certainly convincing, and his experience of fifty years in the Bush, in so many ways coincided with some 40000 years of Aboriginal evolution.”

It’s Barry’s reflection on the management of the land over centuries – 70000 years and counting – that really interested me. It’s only part of the solution but it’s a part that fits in with Life Again’s commitment to “No Change Without Understanding.”

By learning how our first people skilfully managed their land we can begin to understand how to take a preventative approach to the land, particularly in regard to fire management. We must respect them, respect their knowledge, listen to them, and deepen our connection to them.

In simple terms the Aboriginals lit “cool” fires in targeted areas during the early dry season between March and July, reducing fuel loads and creating fire breaks. It helped them facilitate hunting as well as changing the composition of plant and animal species in an area. Imagine how this could be used today despite the complexity of infrastructure, houses, fences, outbuildings, and power lines?

It gets down to hazard reduction. As Nick Cater of the Menzies Research Centre recently wrote in The Australian, January 20th, “Humans once tamed the wilderness. Today it tames us, restricting our ability not only to extract resources but also to resist its fury.” Since “the 70’s…the wilderness was declared pristine, visitors were made to feel unwelcome and conservation areas were sanctified as places untouched by the human stain.” Men like Jack Dunstan may have been the maligned loggers but in their commercial way they had a commitment to the land that had a similar effect to the way the aborigines managed it. 

Cater went on to say “absorbing the lessons from this angry summer will require a paradigm shift, though not the one for which activists hanker. Fire and drought have fuelled growing sentiment that we are ill-prepared for long periods of heat and aridity…We must take the high ground on the security of containment lines.” 

Quite correctly Climate Change is front and centre in our emotional vision, but in the short term we have been burning. Of the three factors that govern the intensity of fires – heat, oxygen and fuel – the latter is the only one that can be controlled basically by humans, immediately.

After the Royal Commission following the Victorian Bushfires of 2009, a National Bushfire Management Policy was published in 2014. One of the 14 goals was to promote Indigenous knowledge of fire management. This recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape that are sustainable and create landscapes resilient to climate extremes. 

In his celebrated book Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe quotes Jim Kohen from the School of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. “While Aboriginal people used fire as a tool for increasing the productivity of their environment, Europeans saw fire as threat.”

Pascoe then goes on to say that the aborigines “were using fire to produce association between plains, forests, and copses. It was planned and managed to enhance returns for their economy.” He notes Tim Flannery considers Aboriginal people became “ecological bankers in the Australian environment.”

Aborigines talk about a “unique grief” after major fires such as we have experienced. Dispossession of Country still remains a major trauma. They watch on and are ignored as their homelands have been mismanaged and neglected.

Dispossion of Country still remains a major trauma.

Consider this: Muthi Muthi spokesman Jason Kelly from Lake Mungo told me this week. “1.2 billion Aboriginal totems were burnt in the fires.” Do we ever consider this? He also said that “trees connect us around the world.” We have to also consider this. 

Hopefully the bushfires have some positive longer-term outcomes, opening new doors to collaboration between old and new Australians, drawing on the Aboriginals’ strengths and values and prioritising their unique interests.

Just as I was about to publish this blog, I received an email announcing the release of a new book next month. “Fire Management; How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia.” The author is First Nations land management expert Victor Steffenson. I look forward to reading it. Hopefully others can join me.