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Preventing fire with fire

November 19, 2020
topic:Natural disaster
tags:#indigenous knowledge, #wildfires, #fire management, #climate change
located:Australia, Canada, USA
by:Frank Odenthal
Wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity worldwide. But it is not too late to tackle the problem.

Climate change and the associated rise in temperatures are increasing the risk of wildfires; not only in the tropics and subtropics, but also in the temperate zone and even in the Arctic Circle, most recently in Alaska and Siberia. Stopping wildfires or bringing them under control seems to pose enormous challenges for emergency services, for the population and not least for nature, as the recent fires in California have shown.

But there are other ways to approach the problem. Indigenous peoples around the world look to millennia-old traditions of fire culture that could provide an alternative to today's conservative handling of wildfires. In Australia, for example, after the devastating fires of recent years, there is a rethinking, a return to Aboriginal fire cultures.

Australian Victor Steffensen calls himself a fire practitioner. He consults fire departments and communities all over Australia and beyond on how to start cultural fires in order to prevent larger, devastating wildfires. He founded Mulong, a company that combines film making and digital visual arts with its community and environmental based consultancy services. In addition, he started The Living Knowledge Place, an online indigenous and community based site that showcases living cultural, community and environmental content for education and well-being.
FairPlanet spoke to Victor Steffensen about wildfires and cultural fires, and why we need a more positive attitude towards fire in general.

FairPlanet: It is said that due to climate change, wildfires will increase. Do you agree?

Victor Steffensen: Well, the alarm bells due to climate change shouldn't be ignored. And it shouldn’t be separated from the poor management of our country in terms of adaptation to climate change and all the issues connected to it. It’s all about preparing the people in charge, but also the people in general. It’s about being prepared and helping communities. So regardless of climate change, rising temperatures or not, we need to be adapting and we need to be preparing our landscape, environments and oceans, for all these unpredictable events in the future.

We need to look after the country, you know. And that should have actually been done before the alarm bells of climate change have rung. It’s important to realise that we need a sustainable way of living, to look after our planet, our landscape , and to keep it in check with natural warmth. We have no choice but to do that. There’s no doubt that what's happening is we're threatening humanity. We're not doing the right thing when it comes to living in harmony with the planet, and living with natural warmth.

What is the difference between a wildfire and a cultural fire?

Well, a cultural fire is actually an intended fire to heal the landscape. You know, for thousands of years people maintained their landscapes using fire for their benefits, and the country has evolved with fire. So, now it needs fire. And when we apply a cultural fire, we're getting in the wild for food, to look after the animals, the plants, and to bring the country to heal. And that's what people need to understand, that using fires in landscapes in the past was done for the benefit of food, and having a healthy landscape. And the natural resources drive the economy for trade, and that was good for people. So doing it in a certain way, like using fire, was sustainable. It's another way of dealing with mother nature, and that's where the idea of cultural fires comes from.

But when you see the wildfires today, they are so severe because people are not looking after the land. There's a clear disconnection of people and landscape. And when we look at the European or Western attitude, it's all about fighting fire. And none of that is based on looking after the land or any understanding of how fire fits into the natural world and how we live in there with it.

We need to apply fire in the right way.

So you actually say that you need more fires, not less fires?

We need to apply the right fires. We need to burn in order to look after the country. When we apply fire, we only burn for grasses, and we only have small fires. So the cool burns are burning certain ecosystems, and only at the right time of the year. We burn away the old fuel loads of grasses that died off. That is to stop the suppression of vegetation, which causes a lot of environmental problems.

If you don't burn, a lot of eco systems and a lot of vegetation has to die out. And then you start to lose certain animals as well, if we don't apply fire. It's about the right balance, where fire fits into nature. It doesn't burn the canopy, and the animals actually benefit from the fire, they don't have to flee, because we apply fire in a way that no animal gets trapped inside.

We start from an ignition point, and we burn out and so the fire burns like a circle outwards, and when it does that it’s a single point and the fire goes in a 360 degrees radius, everything can smell that smoke and everything can escape from that 360 degrees.

It's all a natural process that aboriginal people have worked out all across the world really. That knowledge was embedded within many cultures all around the world, and it's being lost. So right now, it's important that indigenous people are able to share knowledge and try to help us reconnecting with mother nature.

So tapping indigenous knowledge, reconnecting with nature is important for our future as well.

Yes. We need to apply fire in the right way. You know, if we forward that knowledge to future generations, we'll increase biodiversity, enrich our ecosystems in a way it's getting more resilient to wildfires. But that will take time, because we're at a point where the land is really damaged. And that's where the work should begin.

Now it's an exciting time, if people look at it the right way, because the benefits of the landscape being forwarded environmentally and socially to the community.

How would the landscape look according to your recommentations?

The bush would be a lot clearer from head height. It would be green, it would be clean right through and there’d be a rich green canopy along the top as well. So the country would look quite beautiful.

The canopy is so important because it has the flowers, the fruits, the birds, the animals in it; that’s a place up there that we can’t walk up there, just like we can’t walk on the water, you know? So that top canopy is very, very sacred to us, and the simple rule is that it never burns. If you burn the canopy, then you have the wrong fire. So we're teaching how you can burn where fire behaves like water and it trickles through the country and it doesn’t burn everything.

The simple rule is that you never burn the canopy!

Do you see any changes in Australia in the way people look at fire now, the government in particular?

Yes, there are big changes in Australia with the attitude towards indigenous knowledge of fire now. It's a wake up call. Since those large fires, people can see that what's currently happening is not working. And we need to see a change. That change is not necessarily new: it's just based on knowledge that we're having in that country for years.

So it's really about tapping into that knowledge system to get that baseline principle structure to work from. That practical baseline. That's where indigenous knowledge comes in. We're getting more and more people aboard now, landholders now see the benefits of our programs. We're successfully demonstrating how we can do it the right way, which is respect for indigenous knowledge, and giving First Nations the opportunities to rebuild their culture and share their culture on their home land, and also getting the communities benefit from it by including the intercultural sector, like farming, education, schooling, and the list goes on and on.

It's just positive and interesting to get that knowledge back into our culture, instead of being disconnected from the landscape. That's really a big problem. We can't heal the environment if we have a society that is scared of fire! Or that is disrespectful towards indigenous knowledge, of even to work together. So there's a lot of work to do, at all fronts. But Australia is really leading the way in terms of indigenous knowledge, and the government is working together.

We can't heal the environment if we have a society that is scared of fire!

You work as a fire practitioner. Could you explain what you're doing?

As a fire practitioner I burn a lot of country. But I burn a lot of country in the right way, and a lot of that process is teaching communities. I'm helping them to understand how to look at the country the right way, and especially at fire the right way. I actually travel around the world because it is so important, it's such a complex knowledge system, it's based on understanding the trees and the soil, and all the different practices, including practices to change landscapes. It's a very interesting job, and a very important one. The aim was hopefully through my job to engage thousands of practitioners looking after the land. Because that's certainly what we need in the future.

So you are in contact with other indigenous people in other countries, is that correct?

Yes, I was working in California years ago, and I'm currently working with indigenous communities in Canada for the next few years. So it is possible to share that kind of indigenous knowledge globally.

Victor Steffensen, thank you very much for this interview.

Victor Steffensen is an Australian fire practitioner. He is also an indigenous film maker, musician, and consultant reapplying traditional knowledge into the changing world and todays society. He started his work in 1995 when he realised the urgent need to record the invaluable wisdom of the Elders before it was lost. He's now travelling the world educating and recording indigenous and community knowledge, trying to re-engage traditional practices through creative community projects.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Australia Canada USA
Embed from Getty Images
Stopping wildfires or bringing them under control seems to pose enormous challenges for emergency services.
Embed from Getty Images
When we apply fire, we only burn for grasses, and we only have small fires. So the cool burns are burning certain ecosystems, and only at the right time of the year.
Embed from Getty Images
"It shouldn‘t be separated from the poor management of our country in terms of adaptation to climate change and all the issues connected to it."