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Indigenous leaders in Esperance say burns key to beating fires

From The Australian, Sonia Kohlbacher, 25 November 2015

The region’s Noongar people say they can play an important role in keeping everyone safe in the future. Land management by fire is a key component of Aboriginal ranger programs across WA’s northwest, but on the south coast, where the bush is dense, programs are ad hoc.

Aboriginal leaders in the fire-ravaged Esperance region of Western Australia have joined farmers in calling for action to control fuel loads on crown land.

The fire was still burning yesterday, 10 days after lightning strikes on crown land raged into a 100km firefront and burnt out 132,000ha. But some areas are in the clear and exhausted volunteer firefighters have begun returning to what is left of their crops.

They now want to know why they cannot manage crown land or even fight fires before farms are threatened.

The region’s Noongar people say they can play an important role in keeping everyone safe in the future. Land management by fire is a key component of Aboriginal ranger programs across WA’s northwest, but on the south coast, where the bush is dense, programs are ad hoc.

Members of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation had been lobbying for a return to traditional burns on the south coast before fire broke out last week.

Corporation co-chairwoman Gail Reynolds-Adamson said the ancient practice of burning land in a mosaic pattern during the cooler months was proven to result in smaller, cooler fires that also helped conserve animals and ­encouraged plant diversity.

“When our father was alive we used to be able to do those burning practices but if we tried that today we would be known as arsonists,” she said. “We’ve got to get back to the old ways because this country has always been traditionally burned and where you leave it unburned is where you have the horrific fires we’ve seen over the last couple of days.

“It not only takes lives, it ­destroys homes, but if we had controlled burning and we did it the traditional way you wouldn’t get this type of devastation.”

The fire started on crown land as a result of lightning strikes on November 15, but it took until last Tuesday for it to escalate into a firestorm. Farmer and volunteer firefighter Kym Curnow died in the line of duty trying to warn others. Three foreign farm workers — Tom Butcher, 31, from England, Anna Winther, 29, from Norway, and Julia Kohrs-Lichte, 19, from Germany — were also killed.

Farmer and firefighter Dave Vandenberghe, a friend of Mr Curnow, said Esperance was surrounded by millions of hectares of crown land that had not been burnt out for 20-odd years.

“The Department of Environment is worried about parrots’ nests. Well I can tell you there are no parrots left there any more,” he said.

Noongar elder Graham Tucker, 80, said he had lobbied without success for 20 years for local government to fund a permanent ranger program. “It’s time for (government) to act and assist us in any way possible,” he said. “For a long time we have been asking and trying to finance ... rangers.

“It is something that we would like to get the younger ones ­involved in so as it can be passed down because otherwise if it is left too long it’ll just go.”