From the SMH article titled ‘It’s miraculous’: Owners say cultural burning saved their property by Ella Archibald-Binge and Rhett Wyman – 6th January 2020. Click HERE for the original post.
Phil Sheppard watched with trepidation as a giant blaze approached his beloved Hunter Valley property outside Laguna, near Cessnock.
The 66-year-old had poured his heart and soul into Ngurrumpaa – an isolated 160-acre bushland property with a main house and several huts, offering cultural camps for tourists and Indigenous youth.
Three weeks ago, he and other owners were forced to evacuate, helplessly watching online as the Gospers Mountain fire converged with the Little L Complex fire and appeared to engulf the property.
To his amazement, when he returned two days later, traversing the long gravel driveway on foot after fallen trees blocked vehicle access, most structures remained perfectly intact.
“I came around the bend and could see my hut still standing, I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“It burnt right around the house … it was as if somebody had been here watching it and putting it out, but there wasn’t, there was nobody here at all.”
Owners say the property was saved by the traditional Indigenous technique of cultural burning conducted on their land three years ago.
The only hut not protected by cultural burning, 500 metres from the main house, was destroyed in the blaze.
“It’s pretty miraculous,” said co-owner Leanne King, 60.
“This is proof that [cultural burning] works.”
Aboriginal cultural fire practitioner Dennis Barber led a series of cultural burns on six hectares of bushland at Ngurrumpaa in 2015 and 2016 – the first burns in the area since a wildfire swept through in 1994.
“There’s nothing more powerful than doing it and feeling like you’re doing the right thing, and seeing the results,” he said.
Unlike hazard reduction burning, cultural burns are cooler and slower moving, usually no taller than knee height, leaving tree canopies untouched and allowing animals to take refuge from the flames. Small fires are lit with matches, instead of drip torches, and burn in a circular pattern.
Mr Barber says the ancient practice is informed by thousands of years of traditional knowledge.
“It’s more than just putting the fire on the ground – it’s actually knowing the country, knowing what’s there … the soil types, the geology, the trees, the animals, the breeding times of animals, the flowering times of plants,” he said.
The timing and frequency of burns depend on the environmental “system”.
A former park ranger with 15 years’ professional firefighting experience, Mr Barber says he had a “light bulb moment” at a cultural burning workshop with Indigenous elders in far north Queensland in 2010.
“Everything that I’d been doing as a professional firefighter, thinking that I was doing the right thing, was wrong, because I viewed fire in the landscape totally differently after that week,” he said.
“That’s where I got the bug to come back and actually spread that knowledge and see it happening in other parts of Australia.”
The Wiradjuri man started Koori Country Firesticks in 2016 to promote cultural burning as an alternative to hazard reduction techniques in NSW. The organisation has culturally burnt around 50 hectares of land across the Hunter Valley and Sydney, mainly on private properties at the request of owners.
But the 55-year-old has met plenty of resistance from governments, professional firefighters, national parks and even ecologists.
“It’s been a little bit frustrating, but I’ve just decided I’m not going to let that stand in the way anymore,” he said.
Aside from Ngurrumpaa, Mr Barber says another patch of culturally-burnt land at Mangrove Mountain on the Central Coast also escaped last month’s fire unscathed. He hopes these recent results will help to win over the sceptics.
“You’ve got a patch of green surrounded by blackened country, and that’s completely attributable to the cultural burning that we did,” he said.
“It’s important that people recognise that it is valid, it does work, and what we’re looking for is some support for this from higher levels of government.”
Mr Barber says Aboriginal people should be better resourced to lead the implementation of cultural burning across NSW and Australia, alongside existing fire authorities.
“We’re still going to need [Rural Fire Service] volunteers and paid firefighters to do the work they’re doing,” he said.
“I’m not saying it’s the answer – I’m saying it’s part of the answer.”
SMH Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Phil Sheppard as an Aboriginal elder. Mr Sheppard is non-Indigenous, but works alongside Aboriginal people to deliver programs at Ngurrumpaa.