Up to 1788, and for a long time after, Aboriginal people across Australia used fire tools to manage landscapes. Recent environment history and ecological research suggests the decline in cultural burning after colonisation worsened ecosystem health in Victoria and increased bushfire risk.

Prohibiting the use of fire and limiting access to land have constrained the rights and obligations of Victoria’s Traditional Owners to care for Country and pass on their knowledge of fire to the next generation. Consequently, Victorian Traditional Owners have made clear that the cultural use of fire needs to be reintroduced, adapted and applied in Victoria, to allow for healing and caring for Country.

Traditional fire practices were largely prohibited after European settlement, and Victoria’s Traditional Owners haven’t, until recently, been able to share their fire management knowledge, stories, language and practice.

Over time, that practice and knowledge has been fragmented and has effectively ‘gone to sleep’. It lives on in the knowledge of elders, but they haven’t been able to pass it on to the next generation through practice and storytelling.

In the last five years, many new local partnerships have formed between Traditional Owners and land management authorities including Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic), CFA, catchment management authorities and local governments. Through these partnerships, more and more is being learned about cultural burning in Victoria and traditional fire practice is being revitalised and rediscovered.

At the same time, Traditional Owners are starting to develop strategic planning documents (such as Country plans) that state their aspirations for how Country should be managed and the values for which it should be managed.

These local initiatives show the opportunities and challenges for Traditional Owners who are navigating the fire management sector in Victoria.

One challenge has been the lack of a clear approach or strategy across the main fire agencies to support Traditional Owners to undertake cultural burning for the range of cultural values associated with caring for Country. These values include producing food, game and material culture species, and for maintaining the collective wellbeing that arises from caring for Country.

To address this challenge and support an increase in cultural burning practice across Victoria, the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations worked in partnership with Victorian Traditional Owners, Aboriginal Victorians, Forest Fire Management Victoria and the CFA during 2017–18 to develop a Victorian cultural burning strategy. This has involved supporting a practice network of Traditional Owner fire knowledge-holders across Victoria, who want to build practice knowledge and eventually heal Country through the traditional use of fire. On-Country burns and conversations with these knowledge-holders enabled information-sharing and peer-to-peer learning about traditional fire and cultural burning practices.

For Victorian Traditional Owners, traditional fire practice means ‘right fire, right time, right way for the right reasons.’ A cultural burn is planned, led and implemented by a Traditional Owner who has authority on the Country on which a burn is taking place. The reasons for the burn may include increasing or protecting totem, medicine, food and fibre species, protecting sacred sites or improving passage though Country.

In Victoria, it is difficult for Traditional Owners to practice cultural burning how they want. For example, Traditional Owners seek cultural authority to plan and implement burns on the fire ground. They also seek to learn practice from elders and teach children customary fire practices, while conducting burns. Current safety protocols for fire management, which were created to suit European fire practices, make these aspirations very difficult to realise.

Also, Traditional Owners worry that traditional fire-practice knowledge could be misappropriated and used disrespectfully or without permission if shared with others.

Through conversations and engagement with Traditional Owners, the Victorian cultural fire strategy is identifying barriers and opportunities for change in the fire management sector, which would not have otherwise been known or documented. Next year, the sector will work to be much more inclusive of Traditional Owners as land management authorities, and to be much more inclusive of the land management objectives of Traditional Owners.

Safeguarding traditional knowledge is of the highest importance to Traditional Owners, because of past abuses of trust. Partnerships with Traditional Owners much consider how best to respect and protect traditional knowledge.

To Traditional Owners, much of the land we call Victoria is sick. This is because it is no longer actively cared for by them. Getting back on Country and being able to heal Country will help heal individuals, families and communities.

Page last updated: 15/10/18