PhD Research: Cultural Burning: Using Indigenous practice and science to apply fire strategically
Michelle McKemey is undertaking her PhD at the University of New England (UNE) with support from the Firesticks Project and an Australia Postgraduate Award Scholarship. The research project is entitled Cultural Burning: Using Indigenous practice and science to apply fire strategically and involves investigation into Indigenous cultural knowledge associated with fire management as well as ecological experiments to improve our understanding of the ecological impacts of fire in the landscape. Listen to Michelle explaining her project to ABC radio. For the latest update, follow our Facebook site.
Michelle is working closely with the Banbai nation at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area to monitor the ecological and cultural changes associated with reintroducing fire after a long period without fire. The Banbai rangers have identified two species that are important to them that they wish to monitor. These target species include the culturally significant echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), as well as the threatened black grevillea (Grevillea scortechinii subsp. sarmentosa) which is found only near Wattleridge and its surrounds. Michelle and the rangers have developed methodology to monitor these species together, before and after fire, to see how they change when the landscape has been burnt. Pre-fire monitoring occurred in 2015, followed by fire being implemented in August 2015. Post-fire monitor was completed in October 2016 with analysis of data and preliminary results underway, papers are being prepared for publication.
In addition to the two-way ecological monitoring mentioned above, Michelle is undertaking Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) monitoring of two fires in similar vegetation communities. One of the fires is the one mentioned above, at Wattleridge IPA- this was a low intensity, small scale (4.1 hectares) Indigenous led burn during August 2015. Prior to this fire the land had not been burnt for several decades. The second fire is in nearby Warra National Park. This fire was a moderate intensity, large scale (430 hectares) burn during October 2015 led by National Parks and Wildlife and the Rural Fire Service. Prior to this fire the land had been burnt relatively recently, it had only just come ‘into threshold’, that is within the minimum interval recommended for burning of sclerophyll forest. Michelle’s BACI experiment is collecting data on the changes to ground covers, shrubs, trees, logs, fuel hazard and the targeted species (echidna and black grevillea) before and after each of these burns.
Using the results of the ecological experiments, literature review, observations and cultural knowledge gathered through interviews, the research project will produce two ‘fire and seasons calendars’. The first is developed in collaboration with the Banbai nation and will feature biocultural indicators which tell us when it is the right, and wrong, time to burn. A draft of this calendar has already been published and is entitled ‘WINBA = FIRE’. As our knowledge grows, we will continue to update the draft- the latest version was released in 2017. View Winba=Fire. Watch Michelle’s 3 Minute Thesis 2016 presentation here or view 3MT 2017 here. Listen to Banbai ranger Tremane Patterson and Michelle’s Restore Revegetate Regenerate 2017 presentation here
The second fire and seasons calendar is being developed with the Ngukurr community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. This calendar also features biocultural indicators- which are very different in the northern savanna landscape. Through interviews with traditional owners of the proposed South East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area, Michelle and her indigenous collaborators will develop a calendar which uses cultural and scientific knowledge to guide fire management. Michelle visited Ngukurr during the 2016 fire season to participate in burning with the Yugul Mangi rangers and will visit again in future to present them with the first draft of the fire and seasons calendar.
The CSIRO and Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) are working with Michelle and her Indigenous collaborators to test an ALA prototype online interactive Indigenous Seasonal Calendar platform to visualise and reflect the Indigenous knowledge contained with seasonal calendars and the context for which they were developed, as well as create some two-way sharing by linking to other biodiversity information contained in the ALA. This work is part ALA’s Indigenous Ecological Knowledge focus area which is exploring the role of various information management platforms in bridging the boundaries between traditional Indigenous knowledge and western science.
WINBA=FIRE has caught the attention of some key players- including the Bureau of Meteorology, where it now features on their Indigenous Weather Knowledge website.
As the cultural and ecological changes associated with fire can take a long time to manifest, this is (hopefully) a long term research project. Michelle commenced her PhD in 2014 and plans to finish in 2019, although the research could continue well into the future.
The Cultural Burning: Using Indigenous practice and science to apply fire strategically research project is supervised by Prof. Nick Reid (UNE), Dr Emilie Ens (Macquarie University), Dr John Hunter (UNE), Dr Mal Ridges (Office of Environment and Heritage) and Mr Oliver Costello (Firesticks Initiative). Project collaborators include the Banbai Enterprise Development Aboriginal Corporation and Ngukurr community. Scholarships and grants have been gratefully received from the Australian Postgraduate Award (Australian Government through UNE), Firesticks Project (Nature Conservation Council of NSW), Northern Tablelands Local Land Services (through the National Landcare Programme), Rural Fire Service Association, Keith and Dorothy Mackay Postgraduate Traveling Scholarship (UNE) and Ecological Society of Australia. For more information about cultural burning, visit the Firesticks website: http://www.firesticks.org.au/