Illustration by Rose Collins

Aboriginal Elder Noel Butler regards the burned remains of his home. Scorched wood and disfigured sheet metal indicate where the home he built once stood. 

The ashes and burned landscape extend for miles, just a small portion of the damage caused by the latest bushfires in Southeast Australia. Butler’s story is indicative of the experiences of a much larger number of Aboriginal and Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen described the land management practices in Australia in 2018 as a “ticking time bomb.” Just a year later, the bomb detonated, and today, one of the largest bushfires in Australia’s history ravages the landscape.

The flames have traveled over almost 15 millions acres of land, taking with them the homes of people and animals alike. There have been 19 casualties in New South Wales alone, and scientists estimate the fire has killed 800 million animals in the region.

Now it seems as though the entire southeast portion of the continent is engulfed in flames or obscured by smoke —  but some of the most tragic instances of the fire are in places where Indigenous communities tried their hardest to prevent such natural disasters.

Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) are portions of land in Australia cared for by people native to Australia per an agreement with the government. Aboriginal landowners declare their land as an IPA to reclaim the power to preserve and care for it the way they have for centuries.

IPAs offer a way for native people to practice a unique technique of conservation and land management, even after the majority of the continent was appropriated for colonial control. Aboriginal people’s intimate knowledge of the land in these specific areas could be the only way to prevent massive future bushfires, if implemented on a broader scale.

Prescribed burning is at an all time high in Australia. But in the wrong hands, fighting fire with fire is an imperfect solution. It boils down to quality, not quantity. The prescribed burns conducted by the government in southern Australia lack a fundamental component — historical knowledge of the land. 

Aboriginal Australians have practiced their own methods of fire management for generations. Native Australians use “cool burns” to maintain the land. These differ greatly from the larger, hotter fires used by government agencies attempting to reduce fire hazard. Cool burns are smaller, move slowly, produce less smoke and stay low to the ground. 

Illustration by Rose Collins

In comparison to cool burns, planned burns carried out by the government are   irresponsible, hard to control and do little to actually prevent future bushfires. It makes sense. After all, who would you trust? The communities who live off the land and have been tending to it for 50,000 years or descendants of colonists who arrived barely 400 years ago?

Thankfully, the effectiveness and necessity of Aboriginal burning practices are increasingly recognized around the world. The only remaining barriers are cost and approval. Smaller, controlled burns are resource and labor intensive, and are usually relegated to IPAs. This means government officials need to accept that their current strategies are flawed and step aside to let First Nations communities do the work they have practiced for millenia. 

Once the government designates more land as IPAs and directs funding away from larger prescribed burns and toward Indigenous burning practices, the country can begin healing with properly managed and cared for land.

In the meantime, members of First Nations communities, like Noel Butler, need assistance. With their homes, belongings and cultural centers stripped from them by a disaster that could have been mitigated had their voices been heeded, Indigenous peoples need help rebuilding and recovering.

Donate to fundraisers that are by and for Indigenous Australians  to show solidarity with those most affected by this disaster and voice your support for government collaboration with Native groups for a more holistic approach to land management.