In the town of Esperance, WA, a new relationship has been forged between Wadjari elders and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).

Six families from the Esperance region are imparting their cultural, tracking, landscape and fire knowledge, to DFES officers from the Aboriginal Advancement Unit and incident management teams.

The partnership began after fires in the region in 2015, which led to community concern about the protection of significant cultural sites.

Wadjari elders have identified burial grounds, spiritual lands, camping grounds and artefact sites.

The relationship between DFES Aboriginal Advancement Unit and the Aboriginal community has been fostered by Wadjari elder Doc Reynolds.

“As the spokesperson, I met with the Aboriginal Advancement Unit and the elders and organised a meeting as soon as I could to begin putting names to faces and creating those relationships and those conversations,” Doc Reynolds said.

“We started the dialogue with them to impart advice and guidance … [as] we knew Aboriginal sites could be and would be impacted on during the fire mitigation.”

Boyatup fire. Photo provided by DFES.

Doc Reynolds has been working with elders to identify cultural landscapes, and to educate on ecology, lake systems and plants.

“To put it as an analogy—talking to the planner and decision-makers—you have a $20,000 shed and a 20,000-year-old sacred site. One has to go. Generally, they would demolish the site. My role is to identify the significance of the sites so when the decision is made, they can say, ‘Leave it alone, we can replace the shed, but the site we can’t’.”

Doc Reynolds said that due to the fires occurring predominantly on land covered by native title, the Aboriginal community can begin the conversations and put forward knowledge and practices they are familiar with to minimise the impact of machines and vehicles on the cultural landscape.

“The conversation allows voice for our cultural burning practices and we can engage with our rangers. They have this relationship in the Kimberley and we want to replicate that down here, as our landscape is different to most of Western Australia.”

The framework between Indigenous elders and DFES officers will be replicated in six other regions across Western Australia, in the hope of increasing sustainable practices for protecting cultural heritage and environment, and of better managing fire situations.

“Going forward, we are hoping to utilise our fire management skills as well—how we can best move forward in regard to trying to make the best possible outcomes for each area. At least now we have a starting point and we have guidance in that. It’s been a steep learning curve for Traditional Owners, myself, and DFES, on the critical roles we play in fire mitigation, oppression and protection of our cultural sites.”

By Rachael Knowles