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Aboriginal girl using a firestick to burn off dry grass before the monsoon strikes Arnhem land © Penny Tweedie / Corbis via Getty Images

Bringing back the good fire Traditional practices can help heal Australia, Jessica Wegener speaks to Resurgence

As devastating wildfires rip through Australia, stories have emerged of land being saved by a different kind of fire, “good fire”, managed through a traditional practice called cultural burning.

The phrase describes burning practices developed by Aboriginal people over thousands of years to enhance the health of the land and its people. It can include burning or prevention of burning for the health of particular plants and animals, clearing pathways and protecting property. It can also be as simple as a campfire around which people gather to share, learn, and celebrate.

Colonial powers largely eradicated cultural burning in the 1700’s because they “didn’t quite understand there could be a ‘good fire’”, Jessica Wegener, a Ngiyampaa Wangaaypuwan woman, told Resurgence. “On the other hand, I have heard personally from Australian European settlement families who learnt the ways of fire management practices from local Aboriginal people and continued this practice with Aboriginal support across generations.”

In terms of the impact this had on the landscape, the changes in land tenure (i.e. national parks, reserves and private land etc) “made it harder to consider and consult with First Nations People to manage the landscape in a way that connected vegetation pathways,” Wegener said. “This in effect locked up a lot of potential collaboration that we are only now starting to feel the ability to work across, effectively to reconnect the vegetation pathways.” Wegener is director of Firesticks Alliance, an

Indigenous-led organisation that works with communities across Australia to share knowledge of cultural burning and contemporary fire management. “The Alliance is an opportunity for the community to connect with the right type of fire, connection with the environment, connection with people from other places, and for people to learn from each other,” she said. “It also provides an opportunity for new strategies and new ways to connect and be supportive of change and bring back those old ways in this modern day.” Wegener has taken her family to take part in workshops organised by the alliance. “My mum Daniella, an amazing weaver, assisted the traditional owners of Yorta Yorta Country in sharing some techniques for dilly bags and basket making and my son Malachi really enjoyed the spear-making and throwing competitions. They also helped prepare the traditional cooking grounds and held space for conversations around women’s voices and marvelled people with their knowledge and sustained interest, which I feel is an important part of what the Firesticks Alliance does for inter-generational transfer of knowledge,” she said. “The Firesticks Alliance is here to support all those different methodologies around connection and bringing back that good fire.”

Firesticks Alliance are raising money to deliver an Indigenous-led Cultural Fire program to support affected communities after the fire crisis.

34 Resurgence & Ecologist

March/April 2020

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