Indigenous fire fighting model Using Aboriginal Knowledge for Reconciliation

Dorrobee Grass fire in Australia, July 2019
Dorrobee Grass fire in Australia, July 2019 | Photo (detail): Sian Hromek © Firesticks Alliance

Recent bushfires across Australia have caused horrific destruction, plunging the country into a period of considerable self examination. Cultural burning practices of Indigenous Australians are now being looked at by authorities and landowners as an alternative way to deal with the rising bushfire threat across the country. Oliver Costello is the CEO of Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous corporation that teaches, and raises awareness about, these practices. He spoke to “Latitude” about some of the issues surrounding his work.

Do you think Australia is starting to rediscover Indigenous fire management practices again?

I would argue that because our landscapes and our people have been so heavily impacted by colonisation, that a lot of the fire management practices of today are actually derivatives of Indigenous cultural fire management. But, because of colonisation they have lost their protocols and their values in a sense. That’s one of the things that we talk about in cultural fire management. A big part of what we are doing is around managing the kinship in the environment, so your plants and animals and people that have different relationships to each other.

Our old people have evolved into these landscapes to be the fire law teachers and practitioners that can help to regulate that environment. They have learned to evolve and co-exist in that landscape so that they can sustain themselves, but at the same time they look after the environment.

Cultural burning is an expression that not everyone understands, especially internationally. How would you describe it?

Principally, it’s about burning in a way that manages the habitat and vegetation. There’s a set of technical skills and cultural protocols that are very important. People that have the authority to burn need to exercise the authority. That doesn’t mean that they are always the ones burning. You might have some people that are travelling from further away. They come into your country and they might stay in a camp area for weeks or months, or even longer, and they might have responsibilities to burn. But they are burning under the responsibility of the local people – they are not just burning whatever they want. So, there is a cultural protocol there. But technically, it is about managing vegetation. It’s about understanding that different plants have different fire relationships, so they respond differently to fire. Some of them are very fire sensitive, like some rainforest species.  

So when we do cultural burning we are applying what we say is the right fire for that country. You end up with more diverse, healthier landscapes for plants and animals and people. So they are safer environments because you reduce the fuel. But we don’t focus on fuel reduction, because you need to focus on those values linked to protecting and supporting the identity of the land. Generally, we end up burning with much less intensity to a lot of the conventional hazard reduction and wildfires that you see.

Firesticks seems to be leading the way in cultural burning in Australia at the moment. What is the background of your organisation?

It’s kind of a long story, for me it’s a personal journey. I’m Aboriginal on my father’s side, I’m Bundjalung. My mother married this old man from Arnhem Land (far northern Australia) and he came to the Blue Mountains (west of Sydney). He taught me a little bit and said the land is not being looked after. They had all these savannah burning projects that he was involved in. He was one of the knowledge holders  who was involved in setting up the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program. I thought, this is pretty amazing, and thought to myself „Why aren’t we doing it down here?“ Then I ended up doing a leadership program and I met Victor Steffensen and that’s when I started the first Firesticks project. 
  • National Oliver Costello, CEO Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, and Victor Steffensen at the National Indigenous Fire Workshop 2016, Wujal Wujal Cape York hosted by the indigenous people of Kuku Yalanji © Vera Hong
    National Oliver Costello, CEO Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, and Victor Steffensen at the National Indigenous Fire Workshop 2016, Wujal Wujal Cape York hosted by the indigenous people of Kuku Yalanji
  • National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people Vera Hong © Firesticks Alliance
    National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people
  • National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people Vera Hong © Firesticks Alliance
    National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people
  • National Indigenous Fire Workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people, pictured Vanessa Cavanagh with her children Tyson & Emma Vera Hong © Firesticks Alliance
    National Indigenous Fire Workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people, pictured Vanessa Cavanagh with her children Tyson & Emma
  • National Indigenous Fire Workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people, pictured Deborah Swan Vera Hong © Firesticks Alliance
    National Indigenous Fire Workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people, pictured Deborah Swan
  • National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people Vera Hong © Firesticks Alliance
    National indigenous fire workshop in Dhungala 2019, hosted by the Yorta Yorta indigenous people
By now, we have been able to revive cultural burning in lots of areas where it hasn’t been done for hundreds of years. We can demonstrate a methodology to revive cultural fire and build a national network. And we have done it all off the back of volunteers and small grants. The kind of thing that you might spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, we’ve been able to develop it with a very small amount of resources and energy. But now is the time for that investment - because look what has happened to the landscape, look at all these people that want to do this work. Firesticks is really trying to create that social and practical change.

As part of the broader idea of reconciliation how important is cultural burning in your opinion?

I think it is a really big part of the process. It is able to connect land holders and land managers and custodians, to think about a more dynamic and respectful relationship. It allows us to share knowledge in a way that is empowering Aboriginal communities to lead their knowledge systems and demonstrate their practice and to break down stereotypes. There are a lot of negative stereotypes that persist around Aboriginal culture that have got nothing to do with Aboriginal culture. They are related to colonised culture. That’s what happens when you oppress and you dispossess people. It’s not how those people were, it’s not how we were.

What we are doing gives people this positive pathway for reconciliation by understanding each other’s truer identity. It’s been amazing seeing the positive response to our work from very diverse stakeholder groups – from farmers, to conservationists, to landholders and everyone in between. That’s helping us with reconciliation because we are getting people to understand each other and support each other.

The interview was conducted by André Leslie, online editor at the Goethe-Institut Sydney.