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Use fire as a tool, not a master, says Yorta Yorta elder

By John Lewis

In the shady cool of the Barmah forest, Yorta Yorta elder Uncle Colin Walker is explaining how his ancestors used fire to control the land and its gifts.

“We're cautious, because as our elders said ‘fire is a good servant but a bad master’ — so we do it carefully, in sections.

“When our old people camped along the creeks and rivers, they always cleared up and did a bit of burning on a calm day. They watched the weather and which way the wind was blowing. They'd do it in sections — never big burns, so traditional country was never burnt out,” he said.

As he talks, Uncle Col, 85, waves his hands and draws circles to indicate how the old people handled fire: gently.

“When I go down the street now and have conversations with people, we talk about these terrible fires and they say, ‘don't they listen to you Aboriginal people?'”

As eastern Australia burns with more intensity and destruction than we have ever seen, it appears we are ready to listen now.

Forest Fire Management Victoria is working the Firestick Alliance to re-introduce traditional Indigenous cultural burning techniques.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was considering a royal commission into the disaster, which would also look at hazard reduction burns and national co-ordination.

“I think Australians, because of the scale of this particular disaster, will be looking for something more holistic,” he told 2GB radio yesterday.

Craig Lapsley, a former Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner, has also called on the Federal Government to fund and implement a national indigenous burning program.

Mooroopna's Mick Bourke, a director of the national Fire Sticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, said indigenous fire management involved cool burning and reading the landscape "like a book".

“We look at when the different plants and animals are breeding and we burn during the right cycles — like after the eggs have hatched. You've got to be reading the country, and each country has it's own language.

“It's a slow, cool and low burn that creates a mosaic, not everything gets burnt,” Mr Bourke said.

Indigenous people believe our forests will burn with less intensity if managed with traditional fire control techniques.

He said flames from a single fire were carried into the bush in bowls with fire sticks to transfer the fire to fuel on the forest floor. No accelerants or fuel were used.

He said this resulted in a cool, gentle, creeping fire that was allowed to take a natural path through the bush. Under suitable conditions, he said such a fire burned gently, found its own course, and connected with other fires to create a mosaic effect.

Mr Bourke is a Dja Dja Wurrung man who works at Forest Fire Management Victoria as a district planner and cultural adviser.

He said mainstream hazard reductions were hot, fast burns largely aimed at asset protection. Indigenous cool burns were aimed at encouraging the right sort of regrowth and protecting animals.

Yorta Yorta elder Uncle Colin Walker on his country at Barmah. "We need to walk together with one shadow."

He said indigenous people had not been allowed to conduct traditional burning techniques since colonisation and now the country was suffering.

“We're looking at 180 years of neglect and change. There are trees where there used to be grasses and the other way round. Now we're trying to adapt the old ways to a new landscape — but we have to work together,” he said.

Fire Sticks Alliance members have worked with fire management authorities across Australia for the past few years to re-introduce cultural practices.

Members have also travelled to the United States and Canada to collaborate with other First Nations peoples to bring traditional techniques back into mainstream fire management.

Read the country and it's cycles - that's the advice from Indigenous elders when it comes to fire management.

Earlier this year, Uncle Col hosted a Fire Sticks Alliance workshop at Barmah which was attended by indigenous people and fire and parks management staff from both sides of the Victoria/NSW border.

“We want to bring back the old knowledge — but we don't want to walk alone, we want to walk with you. We're like two people walking with one shadow,” he said, pointing at the dusty leaf-strewn Barmah forest floor.

The only shadows are of the towering red gums.

There is no smoke haze here; that's in another world.