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"Let us take the driver's seat," South Coast cultural burning team now available to work with landholders

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Above: The cultural burning team from the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Association and the Batemans Bay Local Aboriginal Land Council are available to help local landholders manage their properties. Images courtesy of Gillianne Tedder. 

Private landholders on the Far South Coast can now engage a cultural burning team from the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Association, to manage hazard reduction and help rejuvenate land. 

The first private cultural burn since the bushfire disaster, has begun on a property at Meringo, south of Moruya, over the last week. 

Andrew White from the Batemans Bay Local Aboriginal Lands Council, who is also a part of the South Coast NSW Elders Association, says he hopes the Rural Fire Service and NSW Government will come on board to learn and work with Elders.

"As Victor Steffensen [Indigenous fire practitioner] has said, let us take the driver's seat, we won't leave anyone behind, but we have the knowledge."

Mr White says cultural burns are much cooler than hazard reduction burns, and operate according to the deliberate use of natural mosaic patterns in nature, making control much easier and allowing for fauna to relocate and survive.

He says as well as thousands of years of knowledge and practise the evidence locally is pockets of land which were burned using cultural burning methods prior to the bushfires have had better outcomes for the bush and for wildlife.

"Cultural burns not only remove leaf litter, thereby restoring the conditions under which native grasses can flourish, they also trigger the seedbank. Using fire the Aboriginal way, as a tool, controls weeds, reduces thick shrubs and fuel, and triggers the plant species that prefer this relatively ‘cold’ fire; the ones that became adapted to it over countless generations of Aboriginal tending to and caring for Country," he said. 

"By contrast, hazard reduction burns (and our collective nemesis, the wild bushfires that are now so much more destructive than they have been), burn hot, and this tends to promote plant species that prefer hot fires, because they are the ones that survive such events. This becomes a vicious cycle, as the tendency for hot fire is locked into the forests and devastating bushfires become more, not less, likely," he said. 

This is the way it is supposed to be 

Walbanja Elder and traditional owner Uncle Les Simon said he saw the difference "careful, well-tended management of land" which had been burned according to ancient cultural burning methods made during the bushfires. "This is the way it is supposed to be," he said. 

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Above: A beautiful sight. The tall grass burns lightly across the hillside, thin white smoke drifting up towards the nearby trees. Walbanja Elder Uncle Les Simon is holding the flame while conducting a cultural burn on a property at Meringo, south of Moruya. 

Land-owners Mark and Julie Mills invited Les, along with Andy White, Dan Morgan, Noel Webster and their crew, to begin a long-term, controlled burn, which started with this open grassland on their property at Meringo.  The burn will take in coastal Eucalyptus forest at a later date.

Uncle Les said the grass area was being burned first because that was what the conditions called for; or, "to be more poetic and use a more indigenous phrase, this is what Country wants".

"The vegetation cover (in this case native Themeda grasslands), the wind direction, the slope and degree at which the lay of the land rolls away, the moisture content of the soil, the time of year; all of these ingredients in the micro-climate must be taken into account when planning a burn. When the conditions are right, the forest floor will get its turn to burn in this gentle way too," he said. 

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Above: Themeda grass after the cultural burn.

Uncle Les said he and another local Elder, Owen Carriage, have founded the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Association in response to the need for more cultural burning on their traditional Country. 

Renewal of cultural traditions

He said the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Association is dedicated to promoting the safe use of fire to promote regeneration of bushlands, farms, and other properties, and developing a business model for cultural burning on private properties of interested landholders. He says the association also sees it as a stepping-stone to a renewal of cultural traditions successfully steeped in time.

The association intends to secure funding to create employment for elders and the youth they train, incorporating sustainable business models to offer superior products to the wider community. In time, they hope this will also include guided walks on Country, a local rangers program, cultural campsites that could be used to revitalise Aboriginal ceremony as well as provide for ecotourism possibilities, and more educational, training and employment opportunities.

The South Coast Aboriginal Elders Association has a Go Fund Me page. It can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/south-coast-aboriginal-elders-regenerating-country You can also follow the South Coast Aboriginal Elders Association at https://www.facebook.com/SCNSWAE/

If you are a private landholder with native vegetation and you’d like to engage a cultural burning team to manage your land, please contact Prue Bartlett on 0427 825 273.