Due to popular demand, this video content from the program “Insight” that was aired on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 – 20:30 is being shared again.
This version is an extract from the program where the presenter talks with Victor Steffensen. You may also like to look through the transcript (below).
Click HERE if you would prefer to view the entire program titled “Line of Fire – SBS News”
Jasarn, Gudagil Ranger: As you can see, it is mixed tree country here. As you can see, all of the little trees have survived the slow burn. The temperature in here is real cool. There is no hot flame and heat in here. Because it is nice and cool in here, it is good for the vegetation and the trees.
Jenny Brockie: Victor, that’s not what people expect to see with a bushfire, it looks very automatic and your colleague there is talking about a cool, it being cool near the flames. What does he mean?
Victor Steffensen, Indigenous Fire Practitioner: Well, he’s meaning that, well, that fellow there Jasarn, he’s a Gudagil ranger in Bundaberg and basically what he was doing there was fire workshop and teaching him and what I do, I go around and work with different communities. Not just indigenous but also rural and fires and also pastoralists and residents as well.
Jenny Brockie: What do you do? How is what you do different to the way you know the rest of the fire fighting community operates?
Victor Steffensen: Completely different, it’s totally opposite to what everyone’s doing here. Like everyone’s talking about the aftermath and it’s always the way western, you know, society works is really based on the aftermath of things and always acting when things are too late. Whereas all the work that I do is in the prevention of that and it’s really about putting fires and not to save your house, just your house, but to save the bush lands, look after the environment as a whole and above all teach people what they should know about the country in terms of understanding fire properly.
Jenny Brockie: When you light a fire, how is that fire different to say traditional back burning?
Victor Steffensen: Firstly the biggest problem in this country is that everyone’s confused and that’s been done by different groups. Some people would go oh, you know, like we call this a fire for hazard reduction and then they’ll say this is a fire for biodiversity, oh this is a fire for traditional burning that indigenous people do, when in fact there is only one fire and that is the right fire and fire for your country, for your environment and a fire that is there more frequently and what I do with the burns that I do, I teach people in their own regions to read the country, understand the land, and be able to see the indicators and the signs on how to manage the country so we prevent wild fires.
Jenny Brockie: Explain to us what fire circles are?
Victor Steffensen: When we light fires we just don’t light fires anywhere. When I teach someone about burning the land, we’ll go to the ignition point on that country and there’s a lot of reasons why that ignition point is there and we burn out and so the fire burns like a circle outwards and when it does that it’s a single point and the fire goes in a 360 degrees radius, everything can smell that smoke and everything can escape from that 360 degrees.
Jenny Brockie: So it protects the animals?
Victor Steffensen: That’s right. That is the primary thing that we need to be doing is protecting the environment because we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. We can’t continue to sit back and watch hundreds of kilometres of land being annihilated and yet just sit down and just think about ourselves. But in due respect we need to be looking after our residents and we need to be looking after our houses, but what’s the point in doing that if we’re not looking after the land?
Jenny Brockie: What was interesting for me watching that footage was the trees weren’t burning and the canopy wasn’t burning.
Victor Steffensen: That’s right. That’s right. Those are very fire prone trees but we burnt at the right time of the year and to make sure that they are protected. Those trees need fire. We live in a country that needs fire and what happens is that we’ve stopped evolving with fire. Our fire culture in Australia is totally flawed to nothing. As before, even if you go back 100 years, pastoralists and people who were historically a part of land can tell you themselves there used to be fires all the time and even indigenous people would work in with them and burn country regularly, but we’ve backed up to a point of regulations, land tenures.
Jenny Brockie: So how often are you going around that kind of work?
Victor Steffensen: Full time, I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years.
Jenny Brockie: And are you doing it in cooperation with government or…
Victor Steffensen: No.
Jenny Brockie: Or agencies, or are you just…
Victor Steffensen: Not so much in cooperation with government and agencies. I mean agencies are my clients as well. Just recently I had National Parks of New South Wales get me involved in training some of their rangers down there and people as well.
Jenny Brockie: So how do you compare to the average fire fighter in Australia do you think, to someone like John?
Victor Steffensen: Oh, well for John and you know, a lot of guys like John are great blokes, but you know, it really is about understanding and they understand, like I said it’s about fighting a fire. You know, or reducing the fuel load. But there’s more, like for the future of a fire fighter like John in fifty years’ time, if we do the right thing, is going to be someone who knows the soils, who knows all the trees, knows all the animals, when they’re breeding and the other thing is we need to be burning a lot more regularly. We’re not burning enough and they talk about 90 percent of Australia that are prone to bush fires, well I reckon there’s only 10 percent that actually gets burnt through hazard reductions.
Australia is a really big area and a big country and unfortunately this government has got to realise that there’s a lot of work to do in making sure that we have management teams out there and that we’re educating the community and involving the residents and involving communities in understanding fire. Not in its vicious form or its threatening form but understanding fire and it’s nurturing and it’s beautiful way of, how beautiful it really is.
Jenny Brockie: How applicable do you think they are Victor?
Victor Steffensen: 100 percent applicable. It doesn’t matter, we still live in Australia, we still have the same climate, we still have the sun beating down on us and what the challenge has been in the last fifteen years for me was applying actually traditional knowledge into contemporary landscapes.
Jenny Brockie: Could you apply those principles to built up areas like part of the city outskirts where there are houses side by side?
Victor Steffensen: Yes.
Jenny Brockie: And back yards backing onto the bush?
Victor Steffensen: Yes, I’ve done that before and I’ve worked with many of those projects, and of course you need to have rural fires involved and you need to have the community involved when it comes to that point.
Jenny Brockie: How different would people’s back yards look, looking out onto the bush if it was being managed the way you want manage it?
Victor Steffensen: Well the bush would be a lot more clearer from head height. So if we’re able to describe what it would look like, it would be green, it would be clean right through and there’d be a rich green canopy along the top as well. So the country would like quite beautiful. It doesn’t matter how big the fuel load is and I’ll be very bold and I’ll say it doesn’t matter how big the fuel load is, we can always protect the canopy and I’ve proven that so many times from as far as north Queensland to Tasmania.
Jenny Brockie: And why is that so important to protect the canopy?
Victor Steffensen: Well the canopy is whole other world. The canopy is so important to us because it has, that’s the life of the flowers, the fruits, the birds, the animals, that’s a whole other place up there that we can’t walk up there, just like we can’t walk on the water, you know? So that top canopy is very, very sacred and the simple rule that it never burns and if you burn the canopy, then you have the wrong fire. And so teaching how you can burn where fire behaves like water and it trickles through the country and it doesn’t burn everything.
Jenny Brockie: Justin, how applicable do you think what’s Victor’s talking about is to the whole of Australia?
Justin Leonard: Universally, I think that that is the perfect explanation of how the bush could be managed on the other side of the interface and there’s so many synergies between the concept of a fire adapted community that where someone’s back garden enjoys a bit of fire activity, the…
Jenny Brockie: Do you think people are ready for enjoying a bit of backyard fire activity?
Justin Leonard: I think it’s an evolutionary process, but what they’ll realise is their backyard isn’t to the back fence, it’s this incredible forest that you can once again interact with. And a forest that won’t bring problematic fire to the house and threaten it with incredible ferocity.
Jenny Brockie: But that is cultural shift for a lot of Australians to accept the idea of the backyard burn?
Victor Steffensen: That’s right, and that’s what’s going to have to happen. There needs to be a cultural shift. We need to evolve our culture with fire.
Jenny Brockie: Well you don’t need to evolve, the rest of us need to evolve.
Victor Steffensen: Yeah, basically, yeah. It’s very frustrating, it’s very frustrating when I sit at home and I watch the news and I see masses of country just going and it brings a tear to my eye to see that country just being annihilated and then I go down and I work on that country and have a look at the land and see all the signs, everywhere I go there’s just continuous signs of country just being just totally devastated.
Jenny Brockie: What do you think is getting in the way mostly or who is getting in the way mostly of you being able to do the kind of things you’re talking about?
Victor Steffensen: Well it’s not hard, I mean, to know that. It really is, you know, the multiple amounts of environmental agencies and red tape and attitudes.
Jenny Brockie: Environmentalist attitudes?
Victor Steffensen: Above all, you know, like not just environmentalist attitudes.
Jenny Brockie: By saying that, that’s a big umbrella but some environmentalist’s attitudes?
Victor Steffensen: Yeah, some of the attitudes in terms of just accepting indigenous knowledge for one and then also just other attitudes of where agencies more or less want to do their own fire program so they can seize funding and run their own programs and so we have all these different people doing different things and delivering different concepts of fire.
Jenny Brockie: Justin, do you think there are places that just shouldn’t be inhabited in Australia? I mean, what’s the message you want to get out about fire?
Justin Leonard: I’d say that there’s, there’s a way to live in every part of the landscape and it’s this integrated way of understanding what, what fire is in that location, how to find the balance and manage the bush in the right way, and that easily unlocks how you build and live and behave and understand.
Jenny Brockie: What are the best things people can do?
Justin Leonard: They have to start with understanding the land and the landscape. It’s this, it’s this complete connection. I think if they’re not willing to buy into the idea of completely becoming part of that location, you know, pick another place.