Indigenous knowledge saves home from wildfire in Australia

01/10/2020 08:54 PM
Tsai Mei-li (left) and Phil Sheppard (right)
Tsai Mei-li (left) and Phil Sheppard (right)

Sydney, Australia, Jan. 10 (CNA) Phil Sheppard believes aboriginal knowledge on managing forests saved his self-built home in a remote mountain part of Australia from raging wildfires that have ravaged the country since September.

Sheppard, a descendant of European settlers in Australia, and his fiancée from Taiwan, Tsai Mei-li (蔡美俐), are among the few people whose properties have survived the mass blazes that have torched 10.7 million hectares of land and destroyed more than 1,700 houses, according to The Guardian.

Their house has remained relatively intact since the fires began several weeks ago, something the couple called a "miracle" in an on-site interview with CNA.

They attributed the luck to the precautions against forest fires that local indigenous people took several years ago in Hunter Valley, where the house is located, based on their ancient land management knowledge and skills involving "cultural burning."

Cultural burning refers to a traditional practice by Australian aborigines to ignite fires in forests regularly before wildfire season, according to Dennis Barber, a friend of Sheppard and member of the Wiradjuri people.

Barber is a co-founder of the Koori Country Firesticks, an organization devoted to the promotion of traditional land management and skills. A former forest ranger, he is experienced in wildfire management and has been trained in cultural burning.

In winter when the weather in Australia is still moist, his people will ignite fires in forests, adopting the method the elders passed on to them, Barber said.

Dennis Barber
Dennis Barber

The strategy is called "cool burning" and is designed to prevent the forest from the devastation of uncontrolled wildfires during the dry season because wood and bushes have been burned.

Wildfires in forests where cool burning has been used tend to die out quickly, allowing trees to survive and wildlife to escape the blaze, Barber said.

In Hunter Valley, most of the trees succumbed to the wildfires or were completely charred, but in the area in which Sheppard's house is located, many trees are still topped by green leaves, he said.

Born in Taipei, the 58-year-old Tsai, who has lived in Australia for over 20 years, said she could not believe the house was saved from the raging wildfires until she saw it with her own eyes.

"It is truly a miracle!" she said.

That miracle was almost prevented four years ago, when Sheppard encountered resistance from a neighbor who works as a firefighter to have Barber perform "cultural burning" in his area.

That neighbor is currently fighting the fire on the front lines but Sheppard would like to have him see the benefits of the aboriginal ways, and he hoped his case would raise public awareness of the value of traditional cultures.

(By Lionel Chiou and Elizabeth Hsu)

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