Wake up and smell the smoke

Esperance Elder Ron ‘Doc’ Reynolds knows this country, he knows the way in which we prepare for and manage bushfires isn’t working.

“This is a sick country,” he says.

“This is not a healthy country.

“Look at the bush, it’s green but it’s a dry green.”

Doc Reynolds explaining how to care for country. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

Like thousands of Australians, Doc watched on with great sadness as this year’s bushfire crisis devastated not only people’s lives, homes and businesses, but the country itself.

The aftermath brought the nation’s Western-style bushfire management practices under scrutiny, with experts advising Indigenous fire management practices be a part of the solution.

Across Western Australia, Indigenous fire management practices and cultural burning principles are becoming more widely recognised and included in fire management regimes.

In the state’s south-east, the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation is working with stakeholders to bring cultural burning principles to the forefront of bushfire management.

The ETNTAC actively seeks partnerships with landowners, offering to assist them in better managing their land and protecting country.


The work of the corporation is informed by the ETNTAC Circle of six Elders, in passing down their knowledge of cultural burning to the younger generation.

A representative from the ETNTAC Circle of Elders, Doc says their burning principles are beginning to be recognised and included.

Doc Reynolds sitting atop of a cultural site near Wharton beach, Esperance. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

“One of the things you do find now, and it’s been a long time coming, is that they’re (government agencies) more receptive to having bushfire or cultural burning principles embedded in their fire mitigation strategies and in their planning going forward,” he says.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to burn that bit of bush, and we’ll have our way of doing it and you’ll have your way, but at the end of the day we want that bush to come back or that country to come back healthier.”

“…wildfires would be a thing of the past.”


Another representative from the ETNTAC Circle of Elders Veronica Williams-Bennell says if we did have more cultural burns, we wouldn’t have so many bushfires.

Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania David Bowman says we’re in a time of renewal in the way in which we manage land and bushfires practices.

“Because we’re in a renewal we can use new techniques, we can adapt to climate change, we can adapt to landscapes that have been degraded by weeds by feral animals, we can adapt to landscapes that have been heavily cleared where we only have little pocket nature reserves,” he says.

“We have all of these adaptive opportunities, let’s adapt and let’s innovate and let’s involve Aboriginal peoples in this.”

Prescribed burn in the Mundlinup State Forest. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

Mr Bowman says we’re still learning how exactly to integrate Indigenous fire management and practices.

“Although there’s now widespread recognition for the need to involve Aboriginal peoples in fire management, how to do this in a culturally respectful way that is socially just and effective remains a challenge,” he says.

“We’re looking into solutions, but the solutions are going to be different to what we’re currently doing.

“An obvious place to start is looking at Indigenous fire use as part of the solution, it’s not going to be THE solution but it’s going to contribute as part of the solution to the bushfire problem that we’ve got.”

Scorched land from prescribed burning. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

“Getting the right fire solutions on country will take a huge shift, involving many good people in many different ways. Everyone is going to be affected if we don’t become aware of how we all fit in together to support change.”

Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen.

The Western Australian government created the first traditional fire program coordinator role at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services in June 2020, based at the Bushfire Centre for Excellence in Pinjarra.

Wayne Davis, the appointed coordinator, engages with Aboriginal communities to facilitate partnerships, in order to incorporate traditional practices with contemporary methods as part of WA’s efforts to reduce bushfire risks.

Traditional Fire Program Coordinator Wayne Davis. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

Mr Davis says the state government has made a critical step moving forward, in shaping a process to find solutions in fire mitigation work nation-wide.

“I think including traditional and cultural burning practices will certainly be a component of solutions going forward, in terms of fire management and applying those methodologies,” he says.

“Traditional knowledge goes back a far way, so bringing them forward to align them with contemporary methods will bring forward the education surrounding cultural burning. This will demonstrate some differences, particularly around thought processes and the methodology in taking a holistic approach to fire and land management.

“I think it’s critical that traditional and cultural burning practices and methodologies are embedded in contemporary fire management as an extra resource, tool or just knowledge in how to better manage country.”

“This holistic approach to fire knowledge emphasises the importance of linkages between diverse components including people, law, spiritual significance and knowledge of plants, animals and country.”

Northern Australia Environmental Resources report on protocols for Indigenous fire management partnerships.

“…an old concept bought new.”

Outside of government and local community bushfire operations, private practitioners are incorporating Indigenous fire management practices as a part of their bushfire mitigation work across Perth.

Entire Fire Management co-founder Gavin Fancote says views on bushfire management are changing and wider perspectives are being recognised.

“Responsibility is shifting, there will be more independence, so therefore from an independent point of view we want to use as much experience that’s around as possible, and that comes as well with Indigenous people,” he says.

“Especially in Western Australia we’re lucky enough to have a state government who’s putting funding towards it, which gives opportunities for more experienced people to stand up and it doesn’t just rely on the volunteers, or on the Indigenous community or on one sole person or organisation.

“The fact that they’re spending money and letting local governments trial things and take different approaches, that’s the key. It’s about letting the local government take responsibility and just helping them to get the resources to trial different things.”

Co-founder of Entire Fire Management Gavin Fancote. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

Mr Fancote says the passion shared by his father, grandfather and the Elders within his community growing up inspired him to carry on their legacy in his bushfire mitigation work.

“We return to the areas that we manage constantly, every three months or so. I’ll try to get back to those areas that we manage to see the bush thrive and that bestows on me that we’re doing the right thing,” he says.

“It encourages me, I’m passionate about it and it’s something that I wholly believe in, that if we did it (burning) right, we could live in amongst this beautiful area, where I grew up and in these sorts of bushland and not be threatened by bushfires every summer.”

“….the voice for the individuals.”

Doc says the holistic process of culture is what informs the cultural burning principles.

“When you look at culture, culture is a holistic process where you can’t just pick and choose what you want. A part of that process is caring for country which is critical because if you don’t look after country, country can’t look after you and that’s where the burning principles come in,” he says.

“We’re showing the people and the young fellas why cultural burning was critical and that it was a process that you needed to do in a manner that was consistent with your cultural beliefs.

“By working with our young rangers we’re showing them how you have to do it, its long, its slow, its tedious but the long term benefit is going to be no more wildfires, no more deaths and more importantly you’re going to have a healthy country.”

A cultural burn underway in Esperance. Photo: David Guilfoyle, ETNTAC.
Cultural burns are based on traditional Indigenous knowledge. Photo: David Guilfoyle, ETNTAC.
An Elder sitting with a young man at a cultural burn near Esperance. Photo: David Guilfoyle, ETNTAC..

Doc says although the work of the young rangers carrying out cultural burns may be slow and tedious, it is a necessity in protecting country and sacred cultural sites.

“A classic was last year, I showed the rangers how to do a cultural burn working on the national parks in the state,” he says. “Fortunately for us, last year we had a major bushfire go through but our fire that we did protected the sacred site.

“It showed us by doing just that little burn- it was only a small burn in the whole scale of things- if the wildfire kept going it could have created a much more devastating effect on the site.”

Doc Reynolds pointing out a burn scar from the bushfire that nearly damaged the Cheetup cultural site in the national park. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

“It’s time to put together a whole new national approach that this nation has never seen before… to build from Aboriginal knowledge as the practical knowledge base to work from and adding the Western knowledge to support a stronger solution.”

Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen.

Doc Reynolds believes we need to merge Western and Indigenous fire practices for a new solution. Photo: Isabel Vieira.

ETNTAC has received funding from the federal goverment’s National Indigenous Australians Agency to implement its Healthy Country Plan.

Doc says he’s optimistic Indigenous cultural burning principles will become recognised and incorporated as a part of the solution to the bushfire crisis.

“I’m very hopeful and I say that with a lot of optimism, that this time next year we will be very well advanced in our fire engagement processes with the other relevant agencies, that our cultural burning principles will have started to become embedded and recognised,” he says.

“We want you now, to help us or include us, so that we can help you.”

“It’s up to you falling behind and teaching …”