UWA research leads to first Elder-led Noongar burn in Denmark in decades

Cross-cultural collaborative research led by PhD candidate Ursula Rodrigues from The University of Western Australia’s Albany campus has resulted in the first Elder-led Noongar burn on Shire of Denmark reserves in generations.

The Walking Together project at UWA Albany builds on the knowledge of conservation biologists and Noongar Elders to inform contemporary management of the unique biodiversity and cultural assets of south western Australia.

UWA Albany researchers Professor Steve Hopper and Dr Alison Lullfitz joined Ms Rodrigues and Noongar Elders Aden Eades, Averil Dean, Carol Pettersen, Ezzard Flowers, Lester Coyne, Lynnette Knapp and Treasy Woods in exploring Noongar knowledge around fire management in the Shire of Denmark.


Image: A highly nuanced knowledge of Country, including vegetation and fuel conditions is an integral part of Noongar fire management.

The team also interviewed fire practitioners, volunteer brigade members and local landcare organisations to understand differing views of bushfire risk mitigation to help understand how the knowledge and aspirations shared by Noongar Elders could be applied.

“We used a collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach, focussing on working together to achieve outcomes for people and Country,” Ms Rodrigues said.

“Semi-structured interviews and ‘yarning’ demonstrated that a highly nuanced knowledge of Country, including vegetation and fuel conditions, was necessary for achieving the desired outcomes of Noongar fire management.

“In all of the groups interviewed, fuel species, vegetation type, patchwork burning, specific fire placement and fire effects on vegetation were characteristic elements of conversation.

“Non-Noongar participants were concerned by authority to burn and the regulation of burning by governments. Local landcare groups shared a focus on land stewardship with Noongar Elders. Elders and fire practitioners shared practical concerns of fuel consumption, site preparation and fuel load.”

Ms Rodrigues said the research process created space for participating Noongar Elders to reconnect with the reserves and the knowledge of fire passed down to them through generations, and participate in discussions around a Noongar-led approach for the rejuvenation of cultural fire.

“The Elders’ requirements and recommendations were forwarded to the Shire of Denmark and a pamphlet co-developed to explain the process and findings of the research to interested community members and volunteer fire fighters,” she said.

The research also led to a Noongar-led burn in the study reserve where, in a symbolic gesture, the Shire’s Deputy Bushfire Control Officer handed a box of matches to Menang Nadju Elder Carol Pettersen, who lit the fire.

Carol Petersen Card

Image: Ms Carol Pettersen at the burn as part of the Walking Together project. Credit – The Shire of Denmark..

Ms Pettersen’s grandson, Matt Palfrey, and Shawn Colbung, both of Binalup Noongar Rangers, finished the job, demonstrating their methodology to the volunteer fire fighters and fire practitioners present.

“I see this as an opportunity for a two-way learning,” Ms Pettersen said. “Listening to the old cultural ways of doing things which were in practice for thousands of years and looking at how western science is used today.”

Walking Together is supported by South Coast NRM and Lotterywest.

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