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.
Victor is so right and thankfully Justin agrees with him. Too often agencies don’t do HRs in the hopes they’ll receive more funding for the next fire season. We need a massive education program throughout Australia to make everyone aware of the existing problems and mistakes. This will save so much money and lives in the long run.
I think the first problem “we” have, is basically always a Far Right Wing mentality in government. Look, listen to the attitude of our politicians. No government has, nor will ever really acknowledge the Indigenous. With this mentality they will never accept a “black” knows better or how do something correctly for the situation. They wont even acknowledge the Fire/SES are under funded. Let the country burn. Brain dead.
Thank you Victor, the most beautiful common sense combined with ancient wisdom about fire & managing it in our environment/ ecosystem.
Music to my ears
Can you please put me in contact with Victor. I am a Queen’s Scout and have been taught how to lite fires like this; look after the land.
I live on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and last time we had a massive bushfire was 1993. I watched houses burn in North Narrabeen (from Collaroy Plateau). There is so much fuel on the ground, if it burnt there would be a catastrophic fire which would endanger wildlife and residents (particularly the elderly in War Veterans home on Veterans Pde.)
We need help to stop this from happening
Andrew, we will see if we can arrange something for you?
Victor need to be in charge of all back burning as it not all about us. There is a lot of animals out there. Mankind invented fire but we have lost touch with it. Im not originally from this country but it’s my home now and it makes me sad to seen things like this happen. We need to have this guy Victor training people how to prevent and be paid by the government. I pay tax and I should have a say where they should spend my tax money.
Victor is a legend
I live in Braidwood, NSW and we are in the midst of two huge bushfires. I would like to facilitate a workshop once fire dangers pass so maybe Victor could come? Can we please have a contact for Victor.
Maria, we will pass your request onto Victor. In the meantime, stay safe and a big thank you to all of the firefighters who are working hard around the state.
Hi there! Just saw the interview and had to think of a dear friend I have who is a full-time firefighter in Melbourne. I would love for him (and his colleagues) to be able to learn from victor! Would you please be able to put me in contact? That would be a lovely Christmas gift to them! Thank you so much!
Thank you Victor for bringing this insight to indigenous fire practice. This is an eye opener and this knowledge needs to be spread around.
Grateful for your work.
Annie, we will pass your request onto Victor.
I think Victor Steffenson made alot of sense & all aspects of Government should meet with him and put his knowledge into practice in all of Australia.
Victor to manage the Australian lands.
Saving The land/animals/home/people/our firefighters/
Love our schools/university’s/ global warming ?/PM/ Put on your listening ?
Start by educating ones self for our country’s sake’s
No need for Paris agreement
No need to be hugging ? up to UN
GET RID OF THEM (check their wealth)Along with Al Gore getting rich by the second.
Australians needs our indigenous people to manage our land and water
Talking is done!!!
What does Richard di Natale, the leader of the Greens, say??
His silence is deafening. I believe his attitude in relation to back burning is partially responsible for the unmitigated disaster & immense sadness for our people, our animals & our land.
Victor Steffensen, I salute you!!
Wake up Canberra, more of our money needs to be distributed to our Emergency Services Dept & make the N.S.W Minister accountable for his shameful lack of leadership.
If no one can see that Victor and the indigenous people’s ways are the right way to protect and care for our land and ourselves after the last few weeks – then what hope do we have.
Is there any setup for donations to Victor Steffensen’s work?
All my thought go to Australia ♥️
Hopes for a change due to Education locally.
?? Lotte Lykke Haardeng, Denmark
Victor Steffensen can be contacted via: http://www.mulong.com.au/index.php/contact/
Are there any contact details for Victor my daughter is preparing her Sace project on the fires and she watched the program and wants to include him ?
Anyone who wishes to contact Victor Steffensen is advised to visit https://www.firesticks.org.au/contact-us/ and send a message using the online form.
No no no no! What is with this mythological belief that the first people’s of Australia all have this mystical innate knowledge of fire is part of the natural course of things, and did it for the benefit of the land. No! It was just a tool to assist in hunting, while making the dry woodlands easier to hunt in. It also encouraged the grass and to grow again that encouraged more of animals to graze and herbs that were of benefit to them as well. It was not some noble deed. It was just to ensure a more regular food supply in their interest. From the time they arrived, over time they changed the landscape by this practice from a land dominated by beech to a land dominated by eucalyptus and fire tolerant species , causing the wipeout if the megafauna, while making aspects more fire prone.
People refer to fire farming as if it should be done everywhere. It works up north in semi arid savanna and woodlands. Not forests. And Each part of Australia is completely different, so you can’t use the same practice everywhere. The more you burn the base of forests, the more they dry out the forest floor, destroy the mosses, ferns, and fungus that retain the moisture like a sponge. The more plants that are well adapted to fire are encouraged, while the others die exacerbates the fire risk. When Europeans arrived, it suited their purpose quite fine to propogate this myth to say fire was a natural good thing. It allowed them to clear the land indiscriminately and log and burn the forests where it suited.
The main point here is just because it can burn doesn’t mean it has to. It just has adapted to survive this. Just because someone is born indigenous doesn’t mean they are the font of all knowlege of best practice, when that practice is possibly wrong in the first place or only applicable to certain parts of Australia. It’s racist to continue reinforcing this myth even with some with this heritage falling victim to believing it.
White man also burned and so does mother nature when lightning strikes.
Robert Bo is right. Why on earth would someone who happens to have an indigenous background, have some sort of mystical knowledge that trumps science, and the knowedge of other fire expert,s even the findings after the latest fires, that fuel reduction did nothing to stop the really big fires? What other qualifications does Victor Steffen have?
Sorry I was not convinced by him on Q&A. He kept repeating the same lines and his presentation seemed garbled and confused. There are plenty of indigenous people who think differently. Forests are being destroyed by unsustainable logging followed by burning and bulldozing. We are losing our precious biodiversity and wildlife. Sending people around to do ‘ttraditional’ burning without a scientific evidence will only make matters worse.
Jill, thanks for your comment and your view is respected and published.
There are many volunteer firefighters, farmers, bushmen and women who disagree with your view.
The tragedy and total destruction of our environment should be a wakeup call that our current land management practices are not working.
We are killing more wildlife than ever before.
The concept of cooler burning practices can help if it is done correctly.
The problem is that we burn too hot when we complete hazard reductions, this is giving burning a bad name.
Hi Victor, thank you so much for your inspiring comments about land management in Australia. My name’s Chris Smith, and im doing a research project centred around how the rural areas around Adelaide could benefit from Indigenous Fire Management. If you would please be interested in answering some question that would be fantastic.
Kind regards – Christopher Robin Smith
Congratulations on your inspiring book “Fire Country ” which I have just read .
The detail and the understanding of the Australian bush is invaluable and ai really hope that the teaching is taken up widely, especially after the recent devastating fires of 2019/2020
I agree with Rob that regular cool burns are not ecologically appropriate in a number of southern ecosystems. For example regular cool burns in ecosystems such as heathland and dry forests and woodlands with heathy/shrubby understoreys will lead to loss of understorey diversity.
Robert Can I suggest you read the book first and then see if you agree with your comments. The book explains that some country is burnt and other country is not to be burnt.
Jill Can I also suggest you read the book and then see if you agree with what you have just written.
In his book he talks about visiting the Sami people in Scandanavia and how they also used fire as a management tool.
Todd, wildfire does not do any favours for the understorey diversity either.