Andry Sculthorpe is a central figure in the revival of traditional fire methods.
Andry Sculthorpe is a central figure in the revival of traditional fire methods.

Rekindling old ways ti fight fire with fire

ANDRY Sculthorpe is a board director of the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, a vibrant national Aboriginal-led network reinvigorating cultural fire and land management practices.

He is also the land and heritage projects co-ordinator at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, a role that sees him carrying out traditional burns.

We meet at Kingston Beach to talk about the place of indigenous fire and land management techniques in an updated suite of bushfire prevention strategies.

Until the nation brings deeper understanding of country to its management practices, Andry predicts increasing bushfire severity over time.

"We are in big trouble," he says.

"The idea that global warming is a future concept is null and void now.

"This summer has reinstated the urgency of doing something about carbon emissions.

"And it also speaks of the fire system we are in now.

"We need to have things happen that aren't currently happening.

"That's where Aboriginal people can be resourced and empowered to take on some of that role."

Australians are becoming more receptive to Aboriginal fire management "because nothing else is working", says Andry.

He wants the aboriginal community to lead the adaptation, not to be seconded.

"People want answers, but are they prepared to do what's required to allow Aboriginal people to lead in that space?

"There is a whole situational relationship between the Aboriginal nations in the country and the white one that needs to be looked at first."

Andry says the way forward is not to find out "what the Aborigines did" and send off other people to do it.

The day before Will Hodgman resigned as premier last month, he announced funding for three specialist Aboriginal positions within the Parks and Wildlife Service, an invitation for Aboriginal representation on the Statewide Fuel Reduction Steering Committee, and a $100,000 pilot program funding for cultural burning practices.

For Andry, those job creations and that rollout are antithetical to Aboriginal self-determination and typical of current governments' high-handed behaviour.

He says he knew nothing of the State Government plan until it was publicly released, and that the decisions were made without consultation with the Aboriginal community.

"They are ignoring the work the community is doing and further resourcing their own capacity to hire people to do what they want."

He asks, why not just resource the community itself to develop its capacity?

Andry is calling for the State Government to fund an Aboriginal community-based ranger team to develop a community-based fire culture.

He envisages that team would work across Aboriginal and state-controlled land in liaison with the Tasmania Fire Service, Parks and Wildlife and Sustainable Timbers Tasmania, the state's three key existing firefighting agencies.

"As part of that development, the team would undertake Aboriginal culture-based training and mainstream logistical firefighting training," he says.

And crucially, he says, the team would be employed by the Aboriginal community, not by a government agency or department.

"At the moment we have Aboriginal rangers working on returned Aboriginal land, but it's a small program in the scheme of what needs to be done," says Andry.

As part of his TAC job, Andry works as one of only five fire and land management rangers on mainland Tasmania, with additional staff in the Bass Strait islands.

It's been a big five years for cultural burning practices in Tasmania, following Andry's attendance with a couple of the other Tassie rangers at the 2014 National Indigenous Fire Workshop, an annual gathering that evolved from a fire management project with Cape York elders that began in 2004.

"Going to the workshop in 2014 was pretty inspiring," says Andry.

"We could see the momentum building in other communities around Australia around reinvigorating the fire knowledge.

"We became more aware of the principles and the potential to transfer Aboriginal knowledge between different places and communities. It opened our eyes to what we needed to do.

"Before that we may have felt 'it's lost, it's lost', but our culture is not lost, because the values and principles are still there. And the land is still there and it can still teach us."

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