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Cultural Burning is about more than just hazard reduction

2019 – 20 will be remembered for the catastrophic bushfires that have raged up and down the coast of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

During these fires I have spent much of my time volunteering on either a Fire Truck or Fire Boat with my local brigade, or as part of the Incident Management Team, filling the role of Fire Behaviour Analyst.

Also, as an Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioner, I see the role Aboriginal Cultural Burning can play in managing fire in NSW and the rest of Australia.

Over the past years I have been undertaking my Masters by Research looking at what my Wiradjuri Cultural Practice has to say about Cultural Burning. Aboriginal Language, Story and Cultural Practice provide the basis and inform our approaches Aboriginal Cultural Burning.

This is my story about how I have contributed to the firefighting effort in NSW. It is maybe not widely acknowledged or known but Aboriginal people have and continue to play vital roles in the firefighting effort. From Planning Officers, Firefighters on the trucks, and in other essential roles in bushfire planning and Caring for Country. Many Aboriginal people across NSW have been undertaking the Cultural Practice of Burning which has in the past provided the added benefit, on top of the cultural maintenance, of reducing the bushfire threat.

One of the most iconic images of this bushfire season has been the Rural Fire Service (RFS) Fire Spread Prediction Map. Known as the “Red Map”, it indicates the areas that will potentially come under ember attack and the areas that will be possibly impacted by fire.

The “Red Map” Fire Spread Prediction Map

How this map is compiled is probably a mystery to most. The people behind this map are a special type of firefighter, the Fire Behaviour Analysts or FBANS. FBANS use special tools, experience, and intuition developed from years of firefighting to predict how the fire is going to behave and where it is going to go.

Bushfires are managed by a team of people called the Incident Management Team (IMT), they are usually based at a Fire Control Centre near to the fire ground. The team comprises specialists in various rolls including Planning who develop the “Incident Action Plan”, the strategies to be used to fight the fire, Operations who are essentially the combat arm of the IMP, deploying resources and coordinating the firefighting both on the ground and in the air.

Other essential elements of the IMT include Logistics which manage the flow of resources to the firefighting effort including food, accommodation, equipment and other essential requirements to keep the massive force of firefighters in the field.

In large incidents like the current NSW Bushfire Crisis, these IMTs spread across NSW fire grounds are coordinated by the RFS State Operations Centre.

As one of the Fire Behaviour Analysts deployed during this bushfire crisis my role has been to prepare predictions of the likely progression of the fire under the prevailing conditions. The development of the prediction map requires an assessment of the weather for up to three days into the future with the help of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) staff based at the BOM Desk in RFS Head office.

Filtering the large flow of information coming in is part of the job

This information gives an idea of the direction the fire may head at different times, and with other data derived from this information using Fire Prediction Models, FBANs look at the terrain, fuel loads, plus other things like vegetation structure and a great deal of experience and intuition to produce a predicted fire map.

The Red Map is a combination of all these predictions done by members of the FBAN team.

These maps provide a range of information to the IMT and allow them to plan the deployment of firefighters, decide on back burning strategies and plan warning and evacuations. While the predictions are in most cases accurate they do not usually take into consideration suppression activities out on the fire ground, so may not represent the final shape of the fire.

These Fire Prediction Maps provide an essential tool in the firefighting effort.

One of the most common questions I’m asked over the years is what the difference between hazard reduction and cultural burning?

Hazard reduction is a strategic tool that can be used to reduce the progression and intensity of a fire by reducing the level of fuel. Hazard reductions do not normally stop fire ignitions as they are generally deployed in a restricted way to strategically slow the progression of a fire to achieve objectives such as asset protection or strategically slow the progression of intense fire so that firefighters might have a change to contain it. The total area burnt each year is only a small percentage of the forested areas in NSW including National Parks Estate. This makes them ineffective in stopping ignitions but useful in the overall firefighting effort.

Hazard Reductions are implemented according to “prescription”, objectives for the burn and a set of environmental and weather conditions under which the hazard reduction will be undertaken. These conditions under which the burn will be undertaken to meet the identified objectives is referred to as the “window” under which the weather and conditions are suitable for implementing the burn successfully, that is to meet the objectives set for the hazard reduction.

One of the issues with hazard reduction is that the “window” is not opening as frequently as it has in the past making undertaking hazard reduction more risky. Another growing risk with hazard reduction is that as the window opens, undertaking a lot of burns at once during the open window can raise smoke issues which can have as big an impact on people as the fire its self with increased hospitalisations and illness.

Another interesting but scary occurrence in this bushfire crisis is that hazard reductions have had little effect in stopping or even slowing the progression of the intense fires we have been experiencing. There are even occurrences where these fires have burnt back through areas only burnt a month before in the leaf fall from the previous fire.

Fire burning back through area burnt by wildfire a month before.

Cultural Burning, in contrast, is firstly one of the ways Aboriginal people maintain their relationship with Country. Non-Aboriginal People sometimes struggle with understanding the basis of how Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioners implement an Aboriginal Cultural Burn; it does not generally look like a hazard reduction. This is because it is not.

An Aboriginal Cultural Burn is not guided by a prescription, it is guided by the close relationship that the Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioner has with Country and everything in it.

This relationship based approach allows for the involvement of other than human beings such as bettongs, bandicoots, lyrebirds, wombats and brush turkeys who all assist with Cultural burning by turning over and reducing the leaf litter.

Cultural Burning is a landscape wide approach unlike the more strategic hazard reduction approach. It provides for emergent outcomes for a range of species who contribute in various ways to the implementation, Cultural Burning in its true sense is not just people driven, this is important as it respects the relational requirements of Aboriginal Cultural Practice.

Aboriginal people in NSW already contribute to the firefighting and fire management effort driven by a strong desire to maintain their connection to Country and to Care for Country in a modern world. The Aboriginal Cultural Practice of Cultural Burning can and does assist in fire management, what is needed is support for Indigenous groups around NSW and Australia to reignite, maintain and expand Cultural Burning as a practice that has maintained the environment and plant and animal species, including humans, for thousands and thousands of years.

There are just no more excuses to justify not engaging with Aboriginal people on Cultural Burning.

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