The dryness of the natural landscape and volume of fuel loads were contributing factors towards the extreme heat and scale of the bushfires during the Black Summer season.

High angle view of burning dry grass

High angle view of burning dry grass. Photo Credit: Isabella Sthl via Getty Images.

Minderoo Foundation is collaborating with Traditional Custodians Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation (Wonnarua Nation) as part of the Healthy Landscapes Mission, to learn about the traditional knowledge and locally adapted land management practices long practiced by the First Australians.

The aim of the program is to reduce fuel loads and improve landscape health, as well as provide an evidence base to show how Indigenous land and fire management can help with disaster resilience.

Wonnarua Nation represents the Wonnarua people, the Traditional Owners of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

Wonnarua Nation has engaged the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation to collaborate on traditional land management and document and record outcomes. Firesticks Alliance is an Indigenous-led network that aims to reinvigorate the use of cultural burning and share skills through workshops. Along with these practices, Firesticks Alliance teaches participants about their identity and culture.

Lawrence Perry, CEO Wonnarua Nation said, “The Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation – Cultural Land Management Program project is important as it builds on this pilot program in the development of current and future cultural fire management practices in local Aboriginal communities in the Hunter region. This project aims to progress a coordinated regional approach by delivering a multi-year cultural fire program.

“Cultural fire management practices involve looking at the landscape and things like the type of vegetation, soil and moisture levels which determine what type of burns are used to reduce fire risk in landscapes. Then techniques like cool burning can be used to manage the land. This is not as hot as hazard reduction burns and can be used to get rid of things like weeds and fuel that shouldn’t be there. It can also rejuvenate local flora and protect native animal habitats,” said Mr Perry.

Cultural burning training with Hunter Local Land Services. Video Credit: Supplied by Wonnarua Nation.

What does the collaboration involve?

Three sites will be selected and plans will be developed that outline the actions and strategies needed to manage fire and native vegetation in these selected areas. Once implemented, this will support broader landscape resilience and minimise the impacts of invasive species and other fire regimes that have been applied.

Sites will be digitally mapped at the start and end of the program to record fuel loads over time and prioritise areas for cultural land management. The maps will provide the baseline evidence for this project, by showing the structure and shape of vegetation over time and how it changes.

Using existing biodiversity and risk management data, the maps will support landscape planning that incorporates ecological, cultural and risk management values. They will also record how cultural burning techniques on indigenous lands can reduce the risk of impact of future fires by adapting the vegetation and ecosystems like waterways to be more resilient.

Cultural burning will be carried out across the sites using a cool burn at low intensity, as opposed to the hot fires often seen with conventional hazard reduction burning. These cool burns target the dry plants and dead leaves that can fuel big fires in the dry season and reveal a moist layer of grass underneath. 

Other deliverables as part of the program include the establishment of pre/post fire monitoring and restoration scientific datasets for at least three burn sites, measuring changes in biodiversity, fire risk, post-fire succession and ecosystem resilience.

Two research candidates will be supported to improve regional understandings of fire and biodiversity and fire and cultural values.

Aboriginal country and fire calendars in the NSW Hunter region will also be developed along with a range of multimedia educational content to further increase awareness and knowledge of the practices used in the project.

The pilot program with Wonnarua Nation will run over a 12-month period, with results available in 2021.

This is the first pilot in a longer term initiative aimed at building an evidence base for indigenous landscape management, to help drive the use and economic viability of this approach on a national scale with traditional owners across Australia.

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