In November 2019, as parts of the nation were battling the first blazes in what developed into one of Australia’s worst fire seasons, the City of Adelaide’s Horticulture Team, project managers and members of the Kaurna community met in the heart of the city with traditional fire practitioner, Victor Steffensen. A descendant of the Tagalaka people in Northern Queensland, Victor has been sharing his knowledge about cultural burning for the past 20 years.
Also known as fire-stick farming, cultural burning is a method that has been used by Aboriginal people to manage land over tens of thousands of years. By introducing others to the practice, Victor and other traditional fire practitioners are keeping this ancient, invaluable Aboriginal knowledge alive.
In the workshop, Victor spoke of the importance of land management and the steps required to take care of our land. Rectifying the issues which leave us vulnerable to wildfires will be a long-term process that may take generations to fix.
The key is education, so the community understands the value of the process, so that new practitioners are fully equipped with the right knowledge, direct from the traditional practitioners and to know how to read the land, the soil, the trees, the fuel loads and the perfect conditions to ignite the right fire for the right country.
It may be hard to fathom when, in 2019, Australia experienced one of the most extreme bushfire seasons, but in Aboriginal culture, fire is seen in a similar way to water – as a means to reinvigorate the land.
A cultural burn is conducted in such a controlled and measured way that quite often – once the fire passes over, the ground is cool to the touch. This is a fire that burns so slowly and purposefully, that creatures great and small can instinctively move away to safety.
The motion of the fire itself is often referred to by the practitioners as ‘trickling’, much like water; cleansing and rejuvenating the land it passes over.
At a time when we are focussed on and making efforts to reverse the damage done to our planet, it makes sense we would seek insights from a culture that valued its environment in such a way that they lived in complete harmony with their natural surroundings for over 65,000 years.
“Over the years, our native grasslands and grassy woodlands have come under increasing pressure from human settlement, urbanisation and a changing climate,” explains Gemma Bataille, Biodiversity Leading Hand for the City of Adelaide.
“Natural grazing and fire regimes are key ecological processes in native grassland ecosystems. Without that, the condition of the vegetation structure and species composition can be profoundly affected.”
“When we see little projects like this, it’s not insignificant, because it gives the people in cities an opportunity to be exposed to the knowledge, and to understand.”
– Victor Steffensen, Traditional Fire Practitioner
To manage the landscape, the biodiversity team have mimicked the effects of fire within this site in recent years.
“With the absence of fire as a tool, the team have used handweeding, mowing and brush-cutting as methods to reduce thatch build-up of native grass species, manage weed species and to maintain the amenity of the site. The aim for this site is to increase total native cover, and to increase the proportion of native cover that is made up by non-grass components of the site,” Ms Bataille said.
“As effective as the fire management will be, personally, I believe the cultural significance is even greater than the ecological outcomes.
“I think it will be a profound step forward for the Kaurna community and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be involved.”
“There is a large reconciliation aspect to a project like this and there have been some leaders in the non-Aboriginal community, who have actively sought out us Kaurna people to be involved,” said Kaurna Narungga Man, Clem Newchurch.
“The burn will be Aboriginal led, which is an amazing example of reconciliation and action.”
According to Kaurna Ngarrindjeri Cultural Bearer, Allan Sumner, fire was a part of everyday life for Aboriginal people – used for healing, warming, cooking and hunting.
“Now a lot of those old practices have vanished. And through the reclamation of our culture and our language, we want to bring these practices back.
“To be able to have fire in the City of Adelaide, what that does for me as an Aboriginal man, is it empowers me. It gives me strength, it lets me know that, hey we have a voice here and we’re part of some of that decision-making around what happens to our country on the Adelaide Plains.”
Along with playing a major part in healing the country, Allan says regular burn-offs will begin to attract other species of plants.
“For us as Aboriginal people, just the smell of fire and smoke, connects us back to the country.”
– Allan Sumner, Kaurna Ngarrindjeri Cultural Bearer
“It’ll awaken those seeds that have been lying in the ground for many years. In fact, the term Tarnanthi, which is used for the Art Festival here in South Australia, means to arise, like a seed growing up from the ground. So that word Tarnanthi for us, also connects us with fire.”
Allan also expressed how important it is for there to be opportunities for young people to express themselves culturally.
“In normalising the practice of fire, it’s going to create that pathway for our young people. To feel like they can be part of their own culture.
“For us as Aboriginal people, just the smell of fire and smoke, connects us back to the country. There’s something that touches our senses and it gives us a sense of belonging.”
The trial of the cultural burn within the City of Adelaide may be on a small scale, but that doesn’t diminish its significance.
“Every single, little step is important for change,” Victor explains.
“When we see little projects like this, it’s not insignificant, because it gives the people in cities an opportunity to be exposed to the knowledge, and to understand.
“So, these types of projects are great, and let’s face it, it’s a massive challenge. Because we’re in a city, but also the land has been tampered with for so long.
“This is going to be a positive way forward. It will excite people and revive this country and its Aboriginal culture in a way that evolves with the broader community.”
To find out more details about this project, titled Kaurna Kardla Parranthi, including an FAQ, please visit Your Say Adelaide.