Book Review: Fire Country: how indigenous fire management could help save Australia

Author: Victor Steffensen

Review by: Jacky Lawes

There is so much to enjoy and learn from ‘Fire Country:  How Indigenous Fire Management could help save Australia’ by Victor Steffensen. I loved this book, even more the second time around.

It is Victor’s story of how he connected with his culture under the guidance and inspiration of Dr Tommy George and Dr George Musgrave, the last of the knowledge carrying Awu-Laya Elders of Cape York, Far North Queensland. These elders were in turn revitalised by Victor’s enthusiasm for learning traditional burning and together they worked with their communities to reintroduce burning for healthy country. During their journey Victor initiated the Traditional Knowledge Project, taking on many challenges of technology and western institutions.

Victor has spent his life since then sharing knowledge of traditional fire management to all who were interested, with particular proviso that it be undertaken respectfully and under auspices of local indigenous communities. He describes the different ecosystems and the types and seasons of burning that result in safe and restorative outcomes. This is indeed specialised knowledge. The goal is always to keep country healthy. He has gained considerable reputation and he has consulted with communities along the east coast of Australia from Cape York to Bega in the far South Coast of NSW. He completed his writing following the devastating fires of 2019-20.

Victor writes as he speaks and in so doing takes you with him. His book is about fire but it is so much more than that. It is an optimistic, generous, passionate and informative insight into traditional aboriginal culture and knowledge. He invents his term ‘praction’, that is, learning on country not from books. Two standout points (there are many) for me are firstly, the need to know the correct ignition point for a fire which can only be determined by knowledge of the site to be burned and which must involve of the local community. There is no one-size-fits-all. And secondly the contrast between the inclusive bottom up ‘care for country’ approach versus the excluding, top down, heavy industrial infrastructure approach.

Our western fire and land management institutions have so much to benefit from traditional knowledge and I sincerely hope that the respectful inclusion of traditional knowledge holders around the table will become automatic at strategic and policy development.

Victor’s passion is infectious and this book inspires.

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