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Looking After Country With Fire

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man through his mother’s connections from the Gulf Country of north Queensland. Victor is a writer, filmmaker, musician and consultant. He is the author of Fire Country and co-founder of Firesticks – a First Nations-led organisation that aims to reclaim and restore cultural burning. 

Victor has recently published Looking After Country With Fire – a picture book about First Nations fire knowledge, illustrated by Sandra Steffensen. We yarned with Victor about reading Country, making friends with fire and protecting ecosystems for future generations. Questions and answers may have been edited for length and clarity.

1. When did you first realise the importance of cultural fire?

Victor: “I realised the importance of First Nations land management in the early 90s from Elders voicing their concerns around the health of the landscape. They wanted to fix the water problems and to reimplement the traditional burning practices. Getting any of them happening was hard with all the western hurdles and red tape. The fire was the first one we kicked off because there was so much knowledge involved and it was a practice that was almost lost in many places. Today, First Nations fire practices will always continue to be of high importance as many communities are facing more fire threats along with aspirations to get these ancient practices happening in their regions again. Fire is just the beginning. We need to focus on water, animals, and everything else too.”

2. Why is it important to pass this knowledge on?

Victor: “It is crucial to strengthen and pass on this knowledge to future generations as people today don’t have the skills to manage the land with fire. We have lost so much traditional knowledge already and people today can’t relearn thousands of years of fire knowledge from scratch. We have dire problems with our landscape from wrong fire use and it is important that non-Indigenous people are a part of the journey. This is so important for First Nations people to strengthen their cultures and connect youth with Country in a way that cares for it into the future. If we are passing on the knowledge then the practices will improve and it will make a better fire culture for Australia right across the board.”

3. In what ways do you pass this knowledge on?

Victor: “The best way to teach understandings about the fire practices is to be on Country showing people how to read the land and lighting the fires. That way they can see it for themselves and learn first hand from the Country. No one can argue with the Country and the way the fire does what we expect it to do from generations of practice. I also like sharing the knowledge and bringing awareness through the arts as well, like music, films, and writing books for adults and kids. Stories, song, dance, and art are all part of passing knowledge on through successful sustainable traditional cultures. I love doing that sort of thing because it is spiritual and a fun way to do things involving all ages and nationalities. I love all of these ways of teaching and will always stick to these ways of doing this work.”

4. Has it been difficult advocating for cultural burning?

Victor: “It was really hard in the early days trying to put fire on Country. First Nations fire management was not considered in the early 90s and it was hard to get landowners and government agencies to listen. Sometimes it ended up with a bit of conflict but that is what we had to do back then to get our chance. Now things have gotten a lot easier with many regions activating and all sorts of people and agencies getting involved in some way or form. But we still have a long way to go with getting the training support to the communities and having this demonstrated properly in full swing for the first time. This needs to happen for generations to come and the government still has not fully committed to this or understood the massive work ahead to care for Country better. People still have fear of fire and that will stay the more the government does not act on what has already happened with the colonial fire history of this nation.”

5. How can people learn to read Country? 

Victor: “They need to start by contacting their local First Nations community and see if there is anyone in the region who can help. Many communities are getting involved and there are more practitioners getting started. If there isn’t then maybe make a start to try and get it happening in the area with the Traditional Owners. You can learn lots and gain a lot of understanding from reading books like Fire Country, but it is better to learn first hand on Country with the people and led by the aspirations in your community.”

6. How did you feel after the wildfires of Black Summer?

Victor: “The Black Summer fires were devastating and it was such a sad loss of Country and the lives of people. It was a drought at that time but it was also a landscape that had never been managed properly in the first place. I was not surprised to see the fire do what it did as the land was a ticking time bomb. If we manage the land better and build a healthy landscape then we will limit the damage we saw last time. Less animals will die and more houses will be saved if we just cared for the land the way it has been for so long before settlement. What is most concerning for me is the fact that this government and their agencies still have not done enough to respond with better burning programs and land management. They have done very little and I know that it will happen again at the same scale if they don’t act now. People blame climate change, some say no burning can help at all, but they still have never tried burning the way Aboriginal people have done to this day. I am tired of all the expert talk, we just need to demonstrate and improve our knowledge, culture, and land now.”

7. What drives you to keep teaching fire knowledge?

Victor: “Healing the damage done to this land by fire and colonisation is going to be intergenerational. That is why it is about culture and making the land part of our society. We need old growth forests again if we want to limit the fires as the old trees are the key to a more resilient landscape. It's 500 years to put a 500-year-old tree back, and we need to care for the land to make that happen in fine detail. We may never see damaged landscapes recover in our lifetime but we can certainly be the turning point. Otherwise our future generations will have a greater debt to deal with if we don’t get our act together.”

8. What does Country look like in your ideal future?

Victor: “Beautiful, old, and full of love and life with people finally re-engaging their cultural responsibilities as custodians of the Earth.”

Looking After Country With Fire by Victor Steffensen with illustrations by Sandra Steffensen, published by Hardie Grant Explore $24.99 and is available in stores nationally.

Illustrations: © Sandra Steffensen
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