Margaret River Bushfires: Why weren't the Indigenous people asked for advice?

Firefighter Peter Murphy faces the Margaret River Bushfires in 2011. Pic: Sean Blocksidge
Firefighter Peter Murphy faces the Margaret River Bushfires in 2011. Pic: Sean Blocksidge

WHEN the 2011 Margaret River bushfires hit, concerned Pibelman Anthony Regan was surprised there were no advisory consultations with the local Indigenous community.

"Fire is one of the first tools the Indigenous people used," Mr Regan said.

Now, with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting a hotter-than-average summer for the region, Mr Regan believes fire management authorities could use traditional knowledge and techniques to reduce risks of another disaster.

One thing he was concerned about was a lack of clearing noticed in dead melaleuca wood in the River Mouth area, which could become a "fireball" in the hot wind.

"As Indigenous we would have used that wood in winter," he said.

"We can't do that anymore."

He also suggested a safety bunker needed to be placed in the area adjacent to Boranup Forest to provide shelter for local residents.

"If a fire starts there's not going to be enough time to get out," he said.

Mr Regan put his concerns to the community: "Have we really prepared ourselves?

"Especially now that the climate patterns are becoming more severe with extreme temperatures."

He suggested the Department of Parks and Wildlife invite an Indigenous advisory to join the department and assist with fire safety preparation in the region.

A Parks and Wildlife spokesperson said the department currently consults with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council in developing annual burning programs, and with local traditional owners on specific issues related to a planned burn where Aboriginal cultural values may be affected.

Mr Regan believed these advisory consultations had not been adequate, though highly necessary.

Further collaboration is likely in the future, taking cues from communities in northern Western Australia, the Parks and Wildlife spokesperson said.

"In the north, Parks and Wildlife has active programs involving the conducting of prescribed burning by Aboriginal people," the spokesperson said.

"This is likely to be extended to the south of the state as engagement with Aboriginal people in management of the land in the department's care increases."

However, the spokesperson pointed out that some traditional fire techniques may not be the most effective option in the changing landscape.

"Understanding traditional use of fire by Aboriginal people has contributed to the policies and practices undertaken by the department, however the landscape has been modified significantly since Aboriginal people practiced fire application in the South West, and a wide range of values need to be considered in fire management in the current era," the spokesperson said.

Parks and Wildlife reported it has developed protocols for managing the Contos Campground in accordance with fire danger.

"As the fire danger increases a range of strategies may be implemented including closure of the site," the spokesperson said.

In reference to Boranup Forest, the department stated it manages parks and reserves and visitors to those areas by undertaking fuel reduction burning and providing education.

"On days when the fire danger is high, ground and aerial patrols and closures of roads, sites or parks may also be implemented," the spokesperson said.

The department has identified several burns in the Margaret River area for this season which will be undertaken subject to suitable weather and fuel moisture conditions. While reduction of fuels is a key strategy in fire management, this is supplemented by the availability of trained bushfire response personnel, modern fire equipment and active ground and aerial detection. In addition, a number of strategic firebreaks are in the process of being upgraded.

Parks and Wildlife has been working with the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services in preparing for the fire season.

The community is reminded that restricted fire season has started and will run to December 21, after which a prohibited period will commence.

For information on burning permits, contact your area's fire control officer or view the 2014 Fuel Hazard Reduction and Firebreak Notice here

It has been nearly three years since the Margaret River bushfire tragedy. See a gallery of photos here.


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