Australia’s landscape is a beautifully diverse one, and with it comes Indigenous wisdom running centuries deep. Victor Steffensen, author of Fire Country, pens a powerful account of Indigenous land management and its healing qualities for both the environment and people.
“You have to know how to read the country and learn the knowledge before you can light a fire.”
In the summer of 2019-2020, I stood in the inner suburbs of Sydney under a red sky while ash from raging fires miles away fell into my cupped hands. Hours away from my safe bubble, one-fifth of Australian forests went up in flames, 33 lives were lost, and an estimated 1.25 billion animals died.
We had all seen wildfires before, but not like the fires that spread through the eastern states that season.
That catastrophic season was not surprising to Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen who stresses that it will not be the last. It’s the harsh reality after years of land mismanagement and a profound lack of consultation with Indigenous Australians.
Victor Steffensen is a writer, filmmaker and fire practitioner who has spent his entire adult life teaching and applying traditional Indigenous knowledge to Country. Called on by two Elders to be the bearer of Indigenous land management knowledge that we might otherwise have lost in the knowledge gap, Victor has been on a journey to help make this land healthy again. And as he shares in his book Fire Country, this is no easy feat.
Facing constant walls of unbudging regulations and colonial mindsets, Fire Country is a journey of not only Victor’s reconnection to Indigenous practices but the wider community’s journey with it too. His drive to continue what the Elders taught him cannot be understated, nor can the stark difference in mindsets of those who are in the driver’s seat of land management and those who should be.
“I wanted to write Fire Country to save that knowledge and to make sure people knew where that knowledge was coming from. I was sharing a lot of knowledge with many communities around Australia and I wanted to put a point of reference to the history of that work that came with two Elders.
“But, also to really get the right perceptions of fire out there because I’m really tired of all the western perceptions of fear and the same old thing of life and property. So I wanted to write Fire Country to give them the right perspective on how it has been in this country for thousands of years and also what could be the alternative if we were smart enough to manage the land and look after the land.”
Learning the cold burn
Descendent of the Tagalaka people through his mother’s side from the Gulf Country of north Queensland, Victor’s fire journey began in Laura, a small community in QLD home to esteemed Elders Dr Tommy George and Dr George Musgrave. What started as a fishing trip became a life-long journey of learning from the last two Awu-Laya Elders, who knew not only the traditional knowledge and stories of that Country but the language too.
It was in Laura that he learned the complex and layered practice of Indigenous fire management, which was almost entirely unutilised since this country’s colonisation.
“Our current fire practitioners and firefighters don’t have those skills of understanding the soils and all the different landscapes, what they should look like, all the foods and medicines and breeding times and plants and animals and how we can adjust our fires depending on the health of the land.”
Victor became a custodian of traditional knowledge dating back thousands of years. He is a keeper of memories handed down to him that allow him to understand and read the Country so that he can apply fire to heal ecosystems and people, and it is this knowledge that he is helping to reawaken throughout Australia.
While those in land management acknowledge that Australia needs fire, the type of fire required is where our knowledge falls short. The fire Australia craves is found in the Indigenous land management systems that kept this environment flourishing for thousands of years before settlers arrived. This fire brings new life, growth and healing – but the western hazard burning fires we witness today leave tracks of land in black ash.
Hazard burning often leaves ecosystems uninhabitable, with no shelter or food for native animals and encourages the growth of invasive plants. It takes ecosystems generations to come back from devastating wildfires and hazard burns. Victor speaks of his first time participating in this type of burning in Fire Country, an experience that undoubtedly aligned him on his path in traditional burning.
“I could see that the rangers didn’t know what they were doing. It’s not really their fault, that was just the way they knew how in those times.
“They put too much fire into the landscape, making the fire fuel itself even more. That fire must have torched hundreds of acres that day…I was only about nineteen years old at the time and I knew that I would never do that kind of burning again.”
The idea that this is the only way to protect people and property from wildfires, which have become more frequent and out of control, seems absurd after learning about Indigenous land management. Indigenous Elders hold thousands of years of wisdom, wisdom that understands that a healthy Country allows everyone to thrive.
“Our current fire practitioners and firefighters don’t have those skills of understanding the soils and all the different landscapes, what they should look like, all the foods and medicines and breeding times and plants and animals and how we can adjust our fires depending on the health of the land.
“It’s a really complex problem and it may sound really easy when you say, let’s just go start burning – that’s the easy part. But it’s the system that’s the problem. It’s the system that put us in this problem in the first place.
“It’s really hard for an Aboriginal person to be heard in this country. And so you’re up against many odds when you’re trying to do this work.”
Indigenous fire management, also known as cultural burning, is a complex practice with many layers of knowledge. Arguably the most distinct difference in the types of fire management is heat. Indigenous Fire practices use a cold burn, one that trickles like water through ecosystems at low heat and low intensity. It dances beneath the canopies leaving tree tops green, allowing time for animals to escape and an opportunity for new growth through heat-activated germination. This is only achieved through an exquisite understanding, knowledge and connection to this land, something Victor explains throughout his book and in his work with communities through the organisation Fire Sticks.
“Once the box and gum systems are burnt they start reshooting fresh grass shoots within a couple of weeks… These systems will now become healthy, green firebreaks for the neighbouring country that will burn later on.”
“He [Dr George Musgrave] pointed out the bloodwood trees’ first flower of the year, which told him when the boxwood country was ready to burn. He pointed out many more interrelationships and signs that signified when animals were breeding, plants were fruiting and when the seasons would come and go. These relational indicators are a very important part of reading the land and knowing when things are ready to burn and when they are not.”
Each ecosystem has its own time to burn, whether it’s gum-tree Country or boxwood Country. These intricate knowledge systems are realised by “praction” (readers of Fire Story will know and love that word) — from learning hands-on and walking the land with Elders. The scope of wisdom and the beneficial impacts it had and could continue to have on Australia is far more than can ever be described in one article. But it’s important to acknowledge that relational indicators are imperative to understanding this practice. As Victor describes in Fire Country, all ecosystems in Australia are interconnected. Cultural burning respects the beautifully symbiotic relationship that animals, plants and humans have in this landscape.
“Once the box and gum systems are burnt they start reshooting fresh grass shoots within a couple of weeks…The land becomes green and lush again for the second time in the year. These systems will now become healthy, green firebreaks for the neighbouring country that will burn later on.”
The evidence that these practices work is there for everyone to see, videos of ecosystems that have stopped wildfires in their tracks after being managed by Indigenous land management practices are astounding and beautifully sad — this could be seen everywhere if we put Indigenous fire practitioners in the driver’s seat.
And as Victor says, land management isn’t suddenly springing to action before the dry season, looking at a map, lighting a fire and clocking off at 5 pm. You have to be there throughout the year, living and understanding the woven nature of the land.
“It’s about making our land healthier. There are so many other benefits that come from that; around a green economy, around improving agriculture, around the social benefits for employment, around education for schools.”
During my phone call with Victor, I confessed to him that it baffles me that we haven’t tapped into the knowledge of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities before now. And even now, receptiveness in high places is limited.
Unexpectedly, he laughs, saying it baffles him too, but the frustration is blatant. Years of trying to bring change and alter Australians’ understanding of fire in this country must have led to more than a few moments of disappointment. He firmly believes the lack of action in turning to Indigenous practices shows the government hasn’t learnt their lesson.
“Understanding the country this way is cultural and spiritual therapy that gives rise to a clearness of identity, pride and ambition.
“On a community level, people want to make this happen in their own regions. There are young people that want to throw their lives at doing this type of work and looking after the land better.
“When we look at how we limit the effects of wildfires into the future, it’s about making our land healthier. There are so many other benefits that come from that; around a green economy, around improving agriculture, around the social benefits for employment, around education for schools. The investment if we look after the country is huge.”
Healing Country, healing people
When it comes to Indigenous fire practices, the positive impact doesn’t stop with the physical land. Reconnection to Country and cultural therapy is a huge part of Indigenous land management. As Victor explains in Fire Country, the old people have always known that young Indigenous peoples need to be connected with the land and culture. It’s good medicine for the problems that colonisation ignited in the country.
“Understanding the country this way is cultural and spiritual therapy that gives rise to a clearness of identity, pride and ambition. You could also see people’s attitudes change towards others of cultural differences, it motivated happiness and the willingness to work together. When you connect with the country you not only empower yourself, but you also begin to understand other people’s circumstances.”
“There have been droves of white Australians that have come to the fire workshops and have walked away with a different perspective on a country they thought they knew, and an appreciation of Aboriginal culture and knowledge.”
The truth Victor holds dear in his book is that the old people were very clever — there is much to be learned from the Aboriginal peoples in healing this country. What’s more, young people want this knowledge too.
In a time where it is easy to feel like there is no way forward, taking time to learn about cultural burning is akin to lighting a fire of hope. There is a path out of this. Putting Aboriginal knowledge at the forefront is our beacon of light.