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NSW bushfire survivor tries cultural burn as Willawarrin community prepares for summer

By Luisa Rubbo, Tuesday October 20, 2020 - 09:05 EDT
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Landowner Karen Anderson says she has been wanting to do a cultural burn on her property for years. - ABC

Karen Anderson was at home making dessert for patrons of the hotel she runs in Willawarrin when the bushfire ripped through the area.

Sixty-six houses were destroyed and 23 were damaged in the deadly bushfires in the Kempsey Shire Council area in the 2019 bushfires.

So this year the publican has teamed up with the Thungutti Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Rural Fire Service (RFS) to conduct a cultural burn on her property.

"Gordon, my husband, he rang me and said, 'Karen, the police have just turned up. It's in Willawarrin, we've just been evacuated,'" Ms Anderson said.

"He said, 'Get the hell out of here now.'"

Ms Anderson said the bushfire in the area had created , making the fire more difficult and hazardous to fight.

And suddenly the conditions became "extremely catastrophic".

Willawarrin resident 58-year-old Barry Parsons became the fourth victim of the NSW bushfires after his body was found at the southern end of the Kyuna Track.

"We realised two days after the fire that we lost one of our locals," Ms Anderson said.

"It was devastating when we got the news. Yeah, it was hard."

Ms Anderson's property was also destroyed, but her house was saved.

"We lost cattle because their throats had been burnt," she said.

'Been doing this for 40-plus thousand years'

The Thungutti Local Aboriginal Land Council recently secured a $20,000 funding from St Vincent de Paul Society to develop a cultural burning team, working with non-Indigenous landowners and the RFS.

Ms Anderson is the first landowner in Willawarrin to try the traditional fire management method used by Aboriginal people over thousands of years. It is said to encourage regrowth, resulting in a more fire-resistant landscape.

"We're all worried about the upcoming fire season," Ms Anderson said.

"There's still so much fuel — everybody's on tenterhooks — if we can learn how to do this during the right time then we can lessen the risk in the future.

"I've been wanting to do this [cultural burn] for years, but I haven't been game."

"Landholders need to listen, learn from cultural burning because we've been doing this for 40-plus thousand years," an elder at the burn said.

Leading the cultural burn at Ms Anderson's property was Thungutti man Elwyn Toby.

"I joined the RFS to show that we could be out there too because we have a bit of knowledge of how fires work," Mr Toby said.

"I remember … the day when the elders used to light fires, the wind could be your worst enemy and it could be your friend too.

"We utilise the wind to our advantage, we scope the area out."

Mr Toby said the traditional method to maintain property "should have been done years ago".

"We didn't know if any landowners were interested in cultural burn, but with Karen and their property, it was beautiful that we could show farmers which way we burn," he said.

"I've very proud of my community and what we're doing now with the cultural burn, working with the RFS. Now we communicate … the fires actually made people stronger.

"It made it closer as a community — non-Indigenous and Indigenous — so that was the outcomes of the fires."

'It's about looking after your neighbour'

After the drought and the bushfires came floods from drought-breaking rain earlier this year, which isolated people in the community.

Dunghutti woman Cynthia Younie said they were cut off for about two days, but they had learnt to look after each other.

"We get regular floods here. We have a good telephone chain, every neighbour rings every neighbour all the way down the Macleay River, just to let them know that there's flood warnings," Ms Younie said.

"It's about looking after your neighbour."

Her husband, Paul, who is the captain of the Williawarrin Fire Brigade, said the flood caused the ash and debris to wash down the river system.

"So we had black water flowing down with dead fish — there were thousands," Mr Younie said.

But the town has banded together to clean up, rebuild and heal.

Mr Younie said part of the recovery of the community was to get men together.

"Men are the hardest to talk about their feelings and emotions, a part of allowing that first step in mental health — being resilient doesn't mean you can't change," he said.

"Things I saw during the last fire season … to seek help isn't a sign of weakness — it's not a sign of strength."

'Four horsemen of the apocalypse'

Thungutti Local Aboriginal Land Council chief executive Arthur Bain said they had painted a mural on their fence to help them remember.

"An image of the fire coming over the mountain, the evacuation, the fish kills and COVID, so that 10 years down the track people will remember that it really happened," he said.

"Those images will go up on the fence and in the short-term it's an opportunity for us all to have a yarn and talk about how we felt during that time and give each other some support."

Ms Anderson said the community was like her extended family and together they could get through anything.

"Droughts, fires, floods and now COVID … we've had the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and we've told them to sod off," Ms Anderson said.

"We're a resilient bunch of people."


© ABC 2020

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