Bushfire royal commission hears of Black Summer's 'disproportionate' impact on Aboriginal people

The massive Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park. ACT authorities have been praised for protecting Aboriginal cultural sites during the fire. Picture: Jamila Toderas
The massive Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park. ACT authorities have been praised for protecting Aboriginal cultural sites during the fire. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Experts say more must be done to listen to the experience of Aboriginal Australians, after evidence First Nations people had been disproportionately impacted by the Black Summer bushfires.

Australian National University researcher and Euahlayi man Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson told the bushfires royal commission 96,000 Aboriginal people were directly affected by the fires in NSW, Victoria, the ACT and the Jervis Bay Territory.

"This represents 29 per cent of the combined Indigenous population of each state and territory or 12 per cent of the entire indigenous population of Australia," Mr Williamson said.

Indigenous people were twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to be affected by the fires, he said.

"Of importance also, 9 per cent or 35,000 children in fire-affected areas are Indigenous and among this group 12,000 are preschool aged or younger, that is zero to four years.

"It is clear that indigenous people have been disproportionately impacted by the Black Summer bushfires and I believe it's very important to engage with those statistics."

He called for more to be done to listen and engage with Indigenous voices after the fires.

Aboriginal people were "inherently and forever tied to particular lands and waters" and had a unique connection to native flora and fauna.

The trauma associated with the destruction of these landscapes or cultural sites has been repeatedly overlooked by past commissions and inquiries, Mr Williamson said, with Aboriginal people "often relegated to an historical footnote".

However he praised ACT authorities for the way they had protected cultural sites, including sacred rock art, during the Orroral Valley fire.

Mr Williamson, a member of the ACT Bushfire Council, said the territory did a "fantastic" job in partnering with traditional owners.

And while the events of the summer had spurred a renewed interest in Indigenous land management practices, Mr Williamson said there were a number of "popularly held misconceptions" about the tradition.

There may only be two months in the year where there were the right conditions to carry out a cultural or cool burn.

"The work carried out in the other 10 months just as important as burning," he said.

He also said cultural burning could not be "grafted onto the regimes" of non-Indigenous land managers.

"Simply put, if Aboriginal people are not in control ... then it is not cultural burning," Mr Williamson said.

The land management practices of Aboriginal people precolonisation may not be as effective now, he also said.

"Australia is a country transformed through the impacts of European colonisation," Mr Williamson said.

The royal commission was also told the bushfires that swept across Australia last summer were unprecedented in the country's geological record.

Dr Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a paleoecologist and Wiradjuri man, said he had been unable to find 'no comparable fire ... that stretches from Queensland to Victoria present in the geological record".

"In that sense these fires are unprecedented in the geological record," Dr Fletcher said.

The commission resumes on Monday, with a focus on local government.

This story Black Summer's 'disproportionate' impact on Aboriginal people first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments