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How Fires Are Impacting First Nations Australians


Australia continues to burn despite several rainstorms that brought some relief to the continent. For Indigenous Australians, the damage from the fires has caused a different kind of grief. Their ancestors lost their land to British colonization in the 18th century. Today, as the fires continue to ravage the country, native Australians like Oliver Costello say they are being displaced again.

Costello is chief executive of Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous network that promotes cultural identity and fire management. We spoke to him earlier this weekend in the middle of a welcome rainstorm.

OLIVER COSTELLO: Oh, yeah. It's a great sign. It's been so dry here where I am. I'm at home now in Bunjilin (ph) country. We live in a pretty wet part of the world, but it's been so dry. There's been things dying in our yard, trees dying in the bush and stuff like that. So this rain is so welcome. And the fires are still raging. It's still not over yet for some communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a special relationship, I gather, between fire and First Nations tribes. Can you explain some of that?

COSTELLO: So for thousands of years, Indigenous people, First Nations custodians across Australia have used fire to manage the land not only to protect themselves, their property and their values but also to look after it. You know, a lot of Australian species have positive fire relationships. Fire can help them to become more abundant or help with their succession - so you know, new generation. A lot of seeds require fire.

So the fires we're seeing now is not the right fire. The right fire is a cultural fire. It's low-intensity, flame heights usually not any higher than your knees, trickling through the landscape, burning the grass, burning the leaves, looking after the canopy, looking after the plants, the animals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has the government shown any signs of working with you on these practices at all?

COSTELLO: We've always been talking to government. I've worked in government. We've been developing policies and relationships for years. But there's never been really any significant investment. Most of the projects are just short-term - to be honest, fairly tokenistic. They always require us to conform with all their laws and policies and rules, and they often don't conform to ours.

And so I guess that's what we're asking for. We're asking for a reshaping of the relationship, and we're just not hearing from them. You know, given the message that we've got, given the support we have in the communities, it's disheartening. And we're just hoping that's going to change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These fires have, of course, been terrible for everyone. But for First Nations people like yourself, what does it mean?

COSTELLO: Oh, it's devastating because we know that fires are always going to happen. Wildfires are part of, you know, living in indigenous landscapes. But our people learn to use fire to adapt with climate change, to adapt with all sorts of other pressures.

And so when we see these fires - you know, like, I went out on country with (unintelligible) crew that we'd been working with for years. And we walked out, and we found a whole mob of kangaroos that were all incinerated. And they're our kinship. Like, in our law, like, they're a part of our family. They're our ancestors. The trees are ancestors. The animals are ancestors. They form our stories.

And so as upset as we are for all the human lives that are lost, we're just as upset for all the animal lives that are lost, all the plants that are lost because we know that a lot of this could've been avoided. We can take people and show them where we've been doing burning and where the fires have either stopped or have dropped their intensity. So they haven't destroyed the canopy. They haven't destroyed all the plants and animals.

So we're just asking that they let us get out and look after our country. We've been under-resourced. And you know, our land's being taken. All our resources are being taken. And now they need us. You know, should we have to fix all your problems for free, or can we, you know, have our jobs back, the ones that our ancestors did? - not new jobs - the ones that our ancestors - the ones that we would be doing now if it wasn't for colonization. That's all we're asking for.

We've got a window of opportunity now. Over the next 10 or 15 years, most of this country - the land that has been burnt - is going to regenerate in a way which will become a firebomb for the future. So we've got the knowledge to stop that from happening, but we need so many resources. We need, like, hundreds and thousands of cultural fire practitioners out in the landscape. So we're asking for the government to support us. They can all work together, and we can get out and heal the land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Oliver Costello, chief executive of Firesticks Alliance. Thank you very much.

COSTELLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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