Traditional burning could prevent bushfire devastation, practitioner says

Southern Yuin man Dan Morgan, from Wallaga Lake but who grew up in Bega, speaks about traditional burning at Bermagui Survival Day.
Southern Yuin man Dan Morgan, from Wallaga Lake but who grew up in Bega, speaks about traditional burning at Bermagui Survival Day.

An advocate for traditional burning believes the extensive devastation to the country caused by the bushfire crisis could have been prevented by using cultural burning methods.

Speaking at Bermagui Survival Day on Sunday, and later to Australian Community Media, cultural burning practitioner and Southern Yuin man Dan Morgan said cultural burning was the traditional fire regime of Australia before colonisation.

"It's devastating to see so much of the country burnt to a crisp and I really think it's preventable," he said.

"The fact is the bushfire crisis is happening because the traditional fire regime of Australia hasn't been implemented for 200 years."

Mr Morgan has worked with the National Parks and Wildlife Service for 20 years during which he has done "a lot of" hazard reduction burns. 

In 2010, he joined the Biamanga Board of Management and met traditional knowledge consultant Victor Steffensen who has been teaching traditional fire methods to the next generation.

Traditional burning, he said, normally uses "cool fire", and practitioners would break the landscape down into different types depending on the dominant tree, all which needed different types of fire over different periods of time.

"The land tells us when that area is ready to burn," Mr Morgan said.

When it came to begin a traditional burn, a small patch of fire would be introduced into the landscape then practitioners would wait for a short amount of time so animals could smell the smoke, know a fire was nearby and escape.

Practitioners then looked at how fast insects were moving away from the fire to tell them how quickly they needed to spread the fire into the landscape.

Mr Morgan said cool burning encouraged grasses rather than shrubs to grow back, and left behind a charcoal mulch layer which put good bacteria into the soil, helped plants germinate and, importantly, allowed soil to retain its moisture.

"That's how we suppress wild fire, by maintaining soil moisture," he said.

"You can still have fuel loads, but if have you still have moisture in soil it suppresses fire.

"Eighty per cent of our plant species need fire to germinate, but it has to be the right type of fire, it can't be too hot."

Mr Morgan said the problem with hazard reduction was that it aimed to reduce fuel loads per hectare.

This made a hot fire that sucked moisture out of the soil and resulted in a change of biodiversity because the plants that loved hot fire were the ones that grew back and were often invasive species or natives that should not be in that type of country.

He said after a hazard reduction burn thick shrubs that loved hot fires would often fill the space between grass and trees and this extra layer provided fire a ladder to climb from the ground into the canopy.

Also, he said after a hazard reduction burn the often shrubby, mid-storey vegetation that grew back in a few years time created more fuel loads than what was originally there.

"By treating the land the same you get one type of country back, which is shrubby and choked up," Mr Morgan said.

He said while traditional burning would prevent situations like the current bushfire crisis, even if it was widely-adopted it would still take one to two generations before it had a positive impact on the Australian landscape again.

"It's a lot more time-consuming and there's so much country that's been mismanaged for 200 years now," he said.

"That's why we're getting these massive fires, because we've mismanaged country.

"We don't put in a line of fire. We put in fire that we actually walk with so there's not as much threat as the wind comes up, but by doing that it's a lot more time-consuming and needs a lot more resources.

"The country is so sick out there, it's not going to be an overnight fix."

About two years ago, a professor of natural history from the Australian National University visited an area near Bemboka during a study and found the number of sediment samples taken, including charcoal, had increased since European colonisation, which confirmed other studies that found large fires have occurred more frequently in the Australian high country after colonisation.

In May, Mr Morgan will be part of a multi-agency project in the Murrah Flora Reserve to reintroduce fire into the koala habitat so if wild fire ever approached the area koalas would have some protection.

He called for ongoing programs and mainstream funding so cultural burning practitioners could continue the practice.

This story Traditional burning could prevent bushfire devastation, practitioner says first appeared on Bega District News.