Australians must take a long-term approach to living with the threat of large bushfires. This means learning from Indigenous people, who have always had long-term interests at heart when looking after the landscape, Leslie Schultz, Jessica Weir, and Helen Langley write.
In October, we wrote an article for Policy Forum in order to attract public interest in protecting Ngadju Country in southern Western Australia. Unfortunately, since December, lightning has ignited 11 fires across Ngadju country. These fires tore through the Great Western Woodlands, the largest temperate arid woodland on earth, as well as coastal scrub and sand plains.
National headlines reported the 12 day closure of the Eyre Highway, the road that connects Perth with eastern Australia. Tourists and truck drivers were stranded at the Nullarbor Plain roadhouses at Caiguna, Cocklebiddy, and back to Eucla, while firefighters fought to protect the Balladonia roadhouse. Also closed were both the road and rail links between the Kalgoorlie mines and the port at Esperance.
Les Schultz, the Chair of Ngadju Conservation, has argued that the Ngadju people should be managing the landscape in this region, saying that “Ngadju through the Rangers and cool cultural burns can keep the roads and rail open.”
The Ngadju people have watched as fires fanned by erratic winds ripped through old growth forests, destroying mature woodlands, and devastating Ngadju cultural sites.
The fires went around the gnammas (granite rock holes), but the trees, shrubs, and traditional campsites surrounding these rock holes have been reduced to charcoal.
Most significantly, groves of wanyarr – water trees – have been lost. Wanyarr are eucalypts that Ngadju fashioned to create well shaped cavities to collect water to sustain them through their journeys through the arid landscape.
Once these trees are lost, a vital living cultural link is severed for the Ngadju traditional owners, both with their ancestors and their continuing association with country. This causes unique grief.
As Valma Wicker, Ngadju Traditional Owner and Elder has said, “It’s heartbreaking. A lot of the old people with the cultural tradition of creating new water trees they’re gone. Only a few knew how to do it. And now the trees are burnt. I’m devastated. A few years back we got the kids at Norseman School to pick a water tree and look after it and now there is nothing.”
Due to limited funding for mitigation works, and the emphasis on protecting townships, Ngadju have had little access to fire sector resources to carry out mitigation works to protect their country and cultural sites.
However, the conversation is slowly changing, with increased support from government agencies for mitigation and Ngadju Conservation actively sourcing funding for a fire truck, personal protection equipment and insurance.
Meanwhile, the Ngadju Rangers who helped fight these fires as members of the Dundas Rural Bushfire Brigade are now waiting for the fires to be contained. When this happens, the emergency services will leave town, and the rangers will be assessing damage to country, recording the lost water trees and other devastated cultural assets, clearing bush tracks, and monitoring regrowth.
As Les Schultz, Traditional Owner and Elder of Ngadju land, has said, “The land is dead, it once was spiritual, now it is death everywhere, no birds, no animals, no creatures, no trees … It will take a long time to heal.”
In the reviews and recovery to follow the closure of the vital Eyre Highway road link, and the bushfires in southeast Australia, Indigenous people and their land management practices have been identified as part of the response. These initiatives must be supported if Australia is to learn to reduce our bushfire risk.
There have always been and will always be large and catastrophic fires in the landscape. Rapid shifts in the climate both heighten our bushfire risk and challenge our recovery. Working together places us in the strongest position to help look after all that we value.