Birpai Local Aboriginal Land Council members lead calls for return of traditional back burning methods

Colourful: This colour slide was donated to the Port Macquarie Historical Society by from colour slide donated by Lionel Gilbert.
Colourful: This colour slide was donated to the Port Macquarie Historical Society by from colour slide donated by Lionel Gilbert.

Remember when the Christmas Bells plains between Port Macquarie and Lake Cathie were a sea of yellow-tipped flowers?

The stretch of roadway along Cathie straight (Ocean Drive) from the Port Macquarie Golf Club through to the Lake Cathie village would bloom each Christmas.

But a reduction in controlled burning means that those traditional blooms are no longer as obvious, says Birpai Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO David Carroll.

Mr Carroll says the Land Council has been asked to add its weight to calls for more back burning including a return to traditional use of fire to reduce fuel loads.

He confirmed the Land Council had started discussions with Port Macquarie-Hastings Council on the topic.

"Many of our members are saying and calling for more active management (of bush land)," he said.

"In traditional times, the back burning was conducted in cooler periods. In this way, you reduced the huge build-up of fuel, which is causing these current bushfires.

"Our members have been saying this for the past couple of years," he said.

"While I am not an expert by any means, the traditional burning off was done quite regularly and in a cycle."

Mr Carroll acknowledged that the rules around back burning were "very tight around the process" but suggested more regular burns would help.

He said burning off would reduce excess leaf litter and provide a boost for the regeneration of native flora, including the Christmas Bells.

Traditional burning off was cyclical, Mr Carroll said, so that no one area had a build-up of ground fuel.

"The Christmas Bells, which only grow in this area, actually need the heat of the fire to cause the seed to grow," he said.

The plains: This photograph from the Port News collection.

The plains: This photograph from the Port News collection.

Mr Carroll also warned against relying too heavily on traditional burning methods to erase the bushfire threat.

"It is too late for this season. But certainly in autumn and winter there should be an opportunity to be very proactive in burning off," he added.

Academic Dr Owen Price is a senior research fellow, bushfire smoke with the University of Wollongong. He conducts research on bushfire risk and its impacts on human health, assets and environmental values.

An ecologist, he has spent the last 10 years researching bushfire risk and management.

"A lot of my research is working out the effectiveness of prescribed burning or hazard reduction burning," he said.

"If you want to protect assets from burning and you want to manage fuels, the best you can do is manage those fuels near those assets.

"While you can undertake hazard reduction burns in national parks, you will need governments to stump up large amounts of funding. And because fuels build-up so rapidly, to be effective they need to be treated every five years for fuel removal."

Dr Price said he had noticed increasing discussions about traditional owners' back burning methods and calls to change the way fuel loads are reduced.

Current hazard reduction burns can be "quite intensive in their energy output so they have a bigger impact when compared with indigenous burns", he acknowledged.

"Indigenous burns tend to work on very small areas where you light up country and walk with the fire, directing it to where you want it to burn.

"But you can't do that on a 1000-hectare burn," he said. "You would need thousands of burns to protect an area such as Port Macquarie.

"And do we have the funds or the manpower to achieve that?"

It is "almost impractical" to eliminate the fire risk completely, he said.

Wonderful: This photo is from the Port News collection held by the Port Macquarie Historical Society.

Wonderful: This photo is from the Port News collection held by the Port Macquarie Historical Society.

"There is always the risk that catastrophic fires will burn in some areas, so you need to focus on those other mitigating area," Dr Price said.

"Make sure your garden is clear of vegetation, don't have fuel piled up beside the house and make sure embers cannot penetrate your home.

"We have a building code for constructing houses in bushfire prone environments that sets your house to reflect radiant heat.

"But it does not take into account the main way fires burn down houses which is through embers (attack)."

Dr Price says the changing climate is also having an impact.

"The climate has already changed and it is now one degree warmer than it was 30 years ago.

"This means that the leaves are drier, and there is less moisture content in the fuel load.

"So fires are more intense than what they were three decades ago and we know they will only get worse.

"We have already seen record levels of fires this season."

He also said physics proved the climate change story because "we proved carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas 150 years ago".

"And we are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," he said.