Fire is identified as the biggest issue for land managers across Cape York. Every year large, wildfires damage millions of hectares of country across the Cape, resulting in huge losses in grazing country; enabling soil erosion; decreasing biodiversity and releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Peta-Marie Standley from Cape York NRM says coordinated and appropriate fire management regimes across Cape York can reduce the devastating impacts from annual hot fires. Traditional Aboriginal burning methods are part of the solution.

The sixth annual Cape York Indigenous Fire Workshop saw more than 120 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from around Australia gathered at Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in July. Hosted by Victor Steffensen from Mulong Productions, in association with Cape York NRM, the fire workshop was focused on traditional Indigenous methods for burning. The workshop addresses contemporary issues of fire management, drawing on knowledge passed down from Elders and traditonal fire knowledge specialists.

 At the workshop demonstrations on how to undertake cool burns was paramount.  It focused on how to control fires to reduce fuel loads, burn smaller sections of country in order to preserve feed for cattle and wildlife.  The workshop also covered how to burn slowly, ensuring animals and insects have time to move away from the fires. Slow, cool burn fires allow tree canopies to remain intact and enusre the survival of adequate ground cover to prevent soil erosion. The ash from cool fires enriches soil, and cooler fires enable the seeds of a broad spectrum of vegetaion to germinate. In a hot fire burn  only  fire loving species survive well.

Victor Steffensen and Peta-Marie Standley have been studying traditional fire practices (for sixteen and eleven years respectively), learning paitiently from some of Cape York’s fire-knowledge holders and Elders. Under an Indigenous led co-research project, KTFMRP* and The Importance of Campfires, Kuku Thypan elders, Old Man Musgrave (20/11/1920 - 08/02/2006), and Tommy George received honorary doctorates from James Cook University.  This award bestows formal recognition on the knowledge held, shared by the brothers, has been passed down through generations for tens of  thousands of years.

Peta and Victor have learned the ancient fire knowledger from Old Man Musgrave and Tommy George, who encouraged them to share knowledge about traditional fire management practices in order that the land be brought back to a natural balance as it was rescued from poor management practices.

The sessions

Victor and Stanley Budby, Mapoon Ranger and Thanakwith Elder, applied their knowledge in the burning of Messmate woodland adjoining significant bauxite spring communities. Through the demonstration, participants learned that  lighting a number of small fires created the patchwork effect in burning, an environmentally superior method to the common practice of creating a large fire front, associated with drip-torch burns.

Scientists from James Cook University and the Australian Tropical Herbarium, Gerry Turpin and Mark Newton, toured participants throught the reserve, discussing the affects of fire on various vegetation communities. Mapoon Rangers, Sarah Barkley and Judy Sagigi, accompanied the groups,  discussing the traditional use of plants.

Peta-Marie Standley’s shared traditional fire management methodologies in her workshops. She demonstrated data collection methods, pre and post burn, and how to monitor the impacts of hot fires over time. The Mapoon Rangers Edwin Ling and Cecil Woodley supported Peta's workshop.

New technologies for recording traditonal knowledge and monitoring work on country are supporting the traditional skills of story-telling and the passing of knowledge, so central to traditional Indigenous cultures.

Ben Lister lead a session on film making, that demonstrated how easy it is for participants to record short interviews through video making. Video is an effective method for recording knowledge, monitoring the impact of burns and sharing information with a broader audience.