Traditional Fire Management: Learning from Australia

Mar 5, 2020 | News

During a recent vacation to Australia, the AFAC Executive Director Blaine Wiggins had the honour of visiting Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) with retired firefighter Uncle Norm Clarke and Inspector Damien Thomas of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES).

Norm was Queensland’s first fulltime Indigenous firefighter and is the first Indigenous Australian to receive the Australian Fire Service Medal. Uncle and Auntie are names bestowed on Australia’s Indigenous Elders.

“Aboriginal people know about thinning the undergrowth with fire,” says Norman. “We know how to identify trees in the bush which burn fiercely, and others which act as a fire retardant.” Over the past few years, Australia, like Canada, has seen increasingly intense fire behaviour. This has had noticeable impacts on the landscape as bigger, hotter fires kill the native flora and weeds regenerate faster.

Patrick Coolwell and Darren Burns of Quandamooka Land and Sea Management Agency (QALSMA) spoke about looking after the country, in particular Jarlo Jargu Boma (Striking Fire to Ground) fire management. Fire maintains the land and has been doing so for thousands and thousands of years. Unless the undergrowth is managed, the structure of the vegetation and arrangement of the fuel changes, which puts the cypress trees on the island at risk. Using a mosaic lighting pattern, traditional fire management practices involve ‘cool burning’ with slow moving, cooler fires that promote the regeneration of native flora.

Fire response on Minjerribah is a model of collaboration. Under Inspector Thomas’ leadership, QFES maintains a relationship with traditional landowners to manage fire incidents while protecting and respecting cultural assets. During a fire response on the island, the QFES Incident Commander works directly with traditional landowners throughout the incident. This teamwork allows for rapid decision making that honours the land and people.

Working proactively, they have created digital mapping of cultural assets that provides fire service personnel with an awareness of priority and no-go areas. For example, at the south end of the island, the cypress trees are of enormous cultural significance. To protect them, most assets are not described, and the map layer can only be accessed by those dealing with an incident on the island and only during the incident.

It is impressive to see the state fire service acknowledging and embracing traditional wisdom. This relationship embodies the reality that we can all learn from each other to create safer communities and achieve the best possible outcomes for any incidents. We look forward to continuing to learn from our brothers and sisters in Australia and to welcoming them to our land to share our knowledge in return.