Victor Steffensen’s Fire Country

During the Australian bushfire crisis in this past summer, a voice sung out clear and true amidst the chaos and panic. Victor Steffensen, an Indigenous fire management practitioner with more than 27 years of experience, reiterated the need for authorities to revive Indigenous fire practices. Speaking on SBS in 2016, three years before millions of hectares of our continent burned, Victor explained: “The way Western society works is really based on the aftermath of things and acting when it is too late. Whereas, all the work that I do is in the prevention of that. It’s really about putting fires in not just to save your house, but to save the bushlands, look after the environment and above all, teach the people what they should know about the country in terms of understanding fire properly.”

In his book, Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Burning Could Save Australia (Hardie Grant), Victor tells the story of his life on Country, learning from two Elders, Dr Tommy George (TG) and Dr George Musgrave (Poppy), about the central role of fire as a tool of care and rejuvenation within the Australian landscape.

The book is also a practical guide for learning to read the country; describing indicators to watch out for to prevent wildfire and the right time to burn for the health of a range of ecosystems in Australia. 

As our world continues to move towards an increasingly uncertain future, building knowledge of alternate methods of caring for our landscapes is critical – which is why Fire Country should be a book on the top of every Australian’s bedside reading pile.

“We live in a country that needs fire. But what’s happened is that we’ve stopped evolving with fire,” continued Victor on SBS in 2016. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. We can’t sit back and watch hundreds of kilometres of land be annihilated and yet sit down and just think about ourselves. In due respect, we need to be looking after our residents and our houses – but what’s the point in doing that if we’re not looking after our land?”

Indigenous fire management practitioner and author of Fire Country, Victor Steffensen. Image supplied by Hardie Grant

Below is an edited extract from Fire Country by Victor Steffensen.

I will never forget the day that Poppy lit the first fire on country in front of me.

We were standing in the middle of a small community of boxwood trees about twenty kilometres out of old Laura town. The ecosystem was only as big as a couple of basketball courts and was surrounded by a small creek and stringybark country. The grass was quite thick, dead and dry, and we were standing in it up to our knees. 

‘I’m gonna light the grass now, like the old people used to do’, Poppy said loudly and proudly. He walked over to the stringybark country and ripped off a long piece of bark from the closest tree.

‘You look now.’ 

He teased one end of the long piece of bark, lit it up and then walked through the boxwood patch in a repetitive, figure eight type movement. He was almost skipping as he dragged the bark along, making the fire follow him around. I watched him dancing through the flames like some kind of fire spirit sprinkling magic dust onto the land.

I watched the fire go higher and the smoke fill the space around him until I couldn’t see him anymore. There was nothing but fire in front of me, but it was only seconds before it started to calm down. Then he reappeared in the middle of the fire, walking over the flames with his bare feet, giving me the biggest smile.

The fire soon trickled out, burning a perfect circle that outlined that little patch of boxwood country. I knew he was making fun and showing off in his humble way. ‘The old people used to burn the country all the time,’ he said, ending with his cheeky high-pitched laugh, which echoed through the trees. 

It was from that point that we started to focus more on fire and burning the country the old, traditional way. Poppy was the main man for the fire, his understanding of fire and the country was a special gift. He made sure to teach me well at every opportunity we had together. From place to place, both old men would stop and tell the fire stories for each different landscape. They would talk about the right time to burn, how all the animals fitted in, what plants lived where, and the types of soils.

Trip after trip involved camping, fishing, hunting, and learning fire management lessons along the way. The only problem was we were not free to practise fire in many places. Laura was surrounded by cattle properties and national parks, and there was no talk of Indigenous fire at the time. The only fires were in the late, drier times of the year from pastoralist and national park fires.

Poppy and our ranger crew would light small fires around the Aboriginal reserve from time to time, but there were no fire programs at all back then. But that never stopped us from learning about fire through the indicators on country. You can learn so much about fire on country, even if you don’t have a fire burning. You have to know how to read the country and learn the knowledge before you can light a fire.

Dr Tommy George conducting a burn in boxwood country from the book Fire Country by Victor Steffensen. Image provided by Hardie Grant

One day a national park ranger came driving into town, asking if we wanted a job burning country with them. He said he needed a few fellas for a couple of weeks to do the fire management work on the national park. Everyone got along well with the local head ranger there at the time, which was why he asked us. I put my hand up for the job, I was keen to go on one of their burns. The old people didn’t want to go, so it was just me, another Aboriginal ranger and a couple of other Traditional Owners from Hope Vale. We packed our swags and away we went to stay out on Lakefield National Park (now called Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park).

There were two park rangers that gave us a short briefing on what we were going to do. Back then there wasn’t much in the way of safety talks or training preparations. We ended up riding on the back of the ranger utes just dressed in our everyday clothes. Each of the vehicles had a slip-on firefighting unit, drip torches, and a flamethrower connected to a drum of fuel. We were told to operate the equipment in the back tray while the rangers were in the air-conditioned cabins. We were off to go and burn some country and it felt like we were really going to conduct an army exercise. It was all to be done to plan and we were there to do what they told us to do.

It was around late October and the landscape was hot, dry and loaded with grassy fuel. Just one match would see the whole place go up in flames. The rangers spread maps across the bonnet of the truck and started pointing their fingers at their plan of attack. ‘We are going to burn this side of the road, but not that side’, they instructed. Their burn zones were broken up by roads and fences instead of reading the country and burning the right place like the old people do. I was told to sit on the back of the ute with the flamethrower and prepare to take aim. When you pressed the trigger it would squirt a constant stream of fire to about four to five metres. The head ranger then drove along the road while I was told to constantly hold the trigger to leave a line of fire all the way along. The other guys were spraying hoses, using water to create a firebreak. As we were driving along I could see the whole country going up into flames behind us. Flames started jumping roads and one of the other rangers came driving over in a panic, shouting at us. ‘The fire got away!’

We had a few heated moments that day, where the fire escaped their burn zone and we had to put it out. I was clinging on the back of the ute holding a fire hose while the ute flew off-road across the rough country. I remember walls of flame almost fifteen feet high raging along at some times. They would just drive straight through the flames in their diesel trucks, leaving us exposed to put them out. We were pouring water on ourselves more than the fire because we were surrounded by licking flames. Straight into the heart of the beast. But as stupid as it all sounds, we did end up controlling all of the fires. We controlled every one of them, but in no way did I feel good about it.

I wondered, ‘Why in the hell am I here?’ I could see that the rangers didn’t know what they were doing. It’s not really their fault, that was just the way they knew how in those times. That was the day I decided to avoid any flamethrower or drip torch to use for burning country. They can put too much fire into the landscape, making the fire fuel itself even more. That fire must have torched hundreds of acres that day. Speeding along in a four-wheel drive for kilometres spraying fire everywhere. I was only about nineteen years old at the time and I knew that I would never do that kind of burning again.

When I got back home and told the old people about my adventures, they shook their heads in a concerned way. They already knew too, because they could see the massive plumes of black smoke in the distance. They would complain about national parks often, especially old TG. I would listen to him all the time at home, grumbling about them. ‘Those bloody national park rangers, they should be learning from us.’

Because we weren’t doing any burns outside of Aboriginal lands at the time, we would stop and look at burns the cattle properties and national parks had done. The old men would tell me to stop the car when we came across any burnt country. They would then explain why the fires were wrong and point out the indicators. In many cases all the country was burnt black, sometimes scorched to nothing for as far as the eye could see. In most cases the trees were scorched, and the canopies completely destroyed. The old people were always pointing it out, complaining all the time with frustration on the boil. What they were seeing was not up to the standards of caring for country through Aboriginal fire knowledge.

The Western fire regimes are based on hazard reduction and they don’t see the layers of cultural and environmental connections that make up Aboriginal fire knowledge, which is based on all elements of nature living in harmony with one another. This misinformation about the difference between cultural burning and hazard reduction or back burning was becoming clearer and clearer every time the old people stopped to talk about fire on country.

But it wasn’t just the burnt country the old people would stop to look at. They would also do assessments on the country that hadn’t had fire in many years. Much of the country we were travelling through was thick with weeds and a mass of dead vegetation for the understory. The old men would comment on how the land was healthy and clean when they were younger.

The country is suffering because no one knows how to look after the fire anymore. The more they opened up my eyes to it, the more saddened I became about the state it was in. Here were two of the most knowledgeable men in the region on their own country, and they couldn’t do anything about it.

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Copyright: Victor Steffensen

Fire Country by Victor Steffensen is published by Hardie Grant, rrp: $29.99. Available now in print and e-book.

Header image: Victor Steffensen attending a fire workshop in Bega, New South Wales. Image supplied by Hardie Grant

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