“Protecting people comes first, and we understand that, but we need to understand that these are sacred sites that are thousands and thousands of years old – as Aboriginal people, we need to protect them.”
In a first for the state’s south, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services deployed their Aboriginal Advancement Unit to work alongside the local indigenous community to navigate around culturally sensitive sites impacted by fire.
The Unit were deployed as part of the state emergency services response to the region’s most recent bushfires, which covered a collective area of almost 400,000 hectares.
Aboriginal Advancement Unit manager Trish Wall said it was about lessening the impact on the environment and protecting sensitive sites.
“This is the first time that the Aboriginal Advancement Unit has been deployed to a fire and the reason we wanted it to be deployed is because we were aware of the culturally sensitive sites in this region,” she said.
“It was important that DFES understood the impact it would have on those sites should that be ignored.
“I know that DFES are taking very good care of trying to make sure to protect those sites and we’ve done this in collaboration with Doc Reynolds, who has guided us, and then we’re guiding DFES on how we can have a lesser impact on the environment and protect those sensitive sites.
“One of the most important things is that the Aboriginal Advancement Unit has a voice here and that we can become a conduit for Doc Reynolds in this area so that we get things done.
“It’s not always easy but we’re finding that we do have a voice here and that’s the most important thing.
“This collaborative approach has been a huge milestone for the [Advancement] unit and we’re hoping that this continues through this journey.”
Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation Senior cultural advisor Doc Reynolds said the collaborative approach was a critical outcome of the November 2015 fires, with DFES having given a commitment to native title holders to include culturally sensitive areas in their fire mitigation planning in the future.
“The traditional landowners are very grateful that our sites are now being protected in serious incidents like this one,” he said.
“My role is not only to identify these areas within the shire, but get that uploaded to the DBCA websites so that everyone coming into contact with the fireplace knows to avoid the sites where possible if it’s not a threat to life or property.
“We’ve got a ground crew and also the ability for the incident management team to have a better understanding of where culturally sensitive areas are.
“I invited both Trish and her colleague Grant to meet with the Elders and the board of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation to give them an update.
“The Elders were quite receptive to the information that was provided and grateful that DFES has taken this opportunity to engage with us at the start of the fire and as part of the fire mitigation strategy.
Mr Reynolds said a number of rock art sites at Boyatup and the Mickel Fire were believed to have been affected but officers had not yet had the opportunity to investigate the damage.
“The problem that we have with the rock art site is, because it’s heat generated, exfoliation can cause the rock art to flake.
“I will be going out there with DFES staff to ascertain if any damage has been done as a result of the fire.
“I know the botanical landscape is quite dense where the rock art is so it could create a lot of fuel and heat. There is only a gap of about 10 metres between where this rock art is and this botanical landscape and the heat of the fire will have been blown straight onto it.
“I can only hope that very little damage has been done but I can’t say that with certainty until I can get out to the site.”
The operation involved about six of the Aboriginal rangers from the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, who have been engaged to work directly with DFES for fire mitigation.
Corporation chief executive Peter Bednall said Trish and Grant had been the link between the rangers and Elders and the incident management team and the organisation could not be more grateful for the opportunity to work with them.
The monumental collaboration came at a difficult time for the rangers involved, with the knowledge that their program would soon be out of funding.
Mr Bednall the initial funding from the state government for the pilot program would end in late March, with their recent commonwealth funding application denied as the government had “other priorities”.
“We had applied to the commonwealth government for support and we were recently told that while our application met the criteria of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, that the federal government had other priorities at this time,” he said.
“Frankly, we don’t understand why they wouldn’t support our ranger team.
“It would be devastating for the community for there to be 12 rangers out of work.
“Most of the rangers we employ did not have any preexisting full-time work and had some sporadic, part-time work.
“We would also lose momentum in what we’ve achieved in that we can see the impact on the community from having Aboriginal rangers.”
Federal member for O’Connor Rick Wilson said he had been working with Tjaltjraak to secure funding for the ranger program and would continue to liaise with Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion to secure future funding.
“The federal government has funded a number of ranger programs across O’Connor, but the minister’s office has informed me the Indigenous Advancement strategy round was fully subscribed,” he said.
“I have been working with Tjaltjraak for some time to secure funding for their ranger program, and have also arranged a meeting with Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion so they could put forward their case.
“Since then I have been continually liaising with the Minister’s office to secure funding for them, but unfortunately they have been unsuccessful at this stage.
“I believe there is a place for this program to keep young Indigenous people connected to Country and will continue to liaise with the Minister to secure funding in the future.”
Whilst Mr Bednall insisted the corporation would push on and find support in other ways, it was perplexing that the federal government did not see the program as a priority.