Lighting an inner fire for traditional burning practices
Two Queensland Indigenous Rangers; Ewamian woman Alex Lacey and Girramay woman Evelyn Ivey, have been on the trip of a lifetime—the first ever Indigenous Women in Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) where they spent an intensive 12 days sharing knowledge of cultural burning practices with women from the Karuk tribe in California.
Hand-picked to represent
Only 4 Indigenous women from Australia attended the event, which ran between 26 September and 7 October 2022. With support from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science, through Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program, Rangers Alex and Evelyn were ‘hand-picked’ to attend.
Ranger Alex, an Ewamian woman, works for QPWS at the Undara ranger base, 300km south-west of Cairns in Far North Queensland. Ewamian Peoples Country stretches across Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria savannah lands and includes Undara Volcanic National Park, Rungalla National Park and Canyon Resources Reserve.
Ranger Evelyn, a Girramay woman, works as an Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger with Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, based in Cardwell which lies in between Cairns and Townsville. The corporation represents the interests of Traditional Owners from nine tribal groups, including Girramay, and its vision is to ‘provide sustainable outcomes for its members and the community at large while maintaining and caring for the land and preserving their culture and traditions.’
QPWS works in partnership with many First Nations groups to manage protected areas across Queensland. These collaborative partnerships enable QPWS Rangers to learn from Traditional Owner knowledge to continually adapt and improve fire management practices on park.
Alex said she felt that Australia was leading the way with government and Aboriginal Corporations working together to care for Country, and she was excited to discuss how these partnerships worked with her hosts in America to show how both agencies can benefit from working together.
Long time coming
It has been more than 200 years since the Karuk tribe had been allowed to burn on some parts of their tribal lands in the Klamath Mountains of California in the United States.
Rangers Evelyn and Alex were honoured to be part of the exchange and revitalisation of Karuk women’s fire cultures.
‘I feel really privileged to have been a part of this amazing experience,’ Ranger Alex said.
‘To be surrounded by strong, empowering Indigenous women putting good fire back into their lands that have not seen fire in a long time is something I will never forget.’
Ranger Evelyn said everything about the exchange felt like a highlight.
‘It was unreal,’ Ranger Evelyn said.
‘Getting to meet the Traditional Owners, women from all over across America and Canada that had travelled back to their Country for the burns. To be there with them was an amazing experience.’
Implementing burning practices, as a part of looking after Country, is an important part of First Nations’ lore and culture. Fire is integral to living with the landscape and caring for Country in accordance with expert knowledge and systems developed over thousands of generations.
‘Getting cultural fire back into the landscape is so important for so many reasons,’ Ranger Alex said.
Indigenous women coming together
Alex said she found the whole experience very inspiring.
‘Being with Indigenous women and seeing how we can all come together, from all different countries, sharing how we burn over here and them sharing their knowledge with me,’ she said.
‘Sharing this knowledge can only help us with managing our land and looking after it.’
Ranger Evelyn said a lot of women gained a lot of knowledge out of this exchange on how to burn.
‘It was their first women’s traditional burn and they’re now going to do a lot more,’ she said.
‘It was very eye-opening.’
From the moment the plane touched down, Alex and Evelyn had to pass an arduous ‘capacity test’.
‘We had to do 4 to 6 laps carrying heavy weights, because we were going to be carrying all this gear—like all your tools, food, water—in your backpack on the fire line,’ Evelyn said.
‘If you didn’t pass that, you couldn’t do the burns.’
The Rangers did not let a little thing like jet lag from the 20+ hour flight hold them back. From the moment they got there, Evelyn and Alex hit the ground running, with Evelyn in the hold-down team and Alex in the ignition team.
From within their squads on the fire ground, they had discussions about burning practices.
‘We’d have a morning briefing, then another on the fire ground followed by a discussion after we’d finished burning—looking at what we were wanting to achieve, what we did and what we could do better,’ Alex said.
While there were men from the Karuk fire team there to assist, it was the women who were doing the burning.
Alex said most of the positions were filled by women.
‘This was really cool and inspirational to see that you can achieve those things and get there,’ she said.
‘The leaders were women and were called ‘burn bosses’ which here in Australia we call IC (Incident Controller) and when being in charge of a sector you were known as a ‘squad boss’.’
Ranger Evelyn noticed some differences as well as similarities in the way the Karuk women carry out burns.
‘When we do fires, we only have one person that does all the talking – the IC,’ she said.
‘Over there, there’s a leader—the burn boss—in each group and then there’s the ‘big boss’ that all the burn bosses report to. It was unreal talking to the big boss. She had a lot of knowledge and had done so many fires.’
‘Her being female was awesome!’ Ranger Alex said.
As part of the hold-down team, Evelyn’s main role was to keep an eye out on the ‘spot-overs’.
‘We’d run for the hoses, put them out and then come back to stand our posts again,’ she said.
‘They go with the wind like we do,’ Evelyn said.
‘If it was still, they’d say yep, let’s go. The ignition team would come and light the fire, but the fire was still behind them, they’re just going downhill in zig-zags. It was really hilly country. Their women are very fit.
When we light, we’re downhill, that’s why it’s more dangerous for them over there, but it did all work out in the end.
Their fire was not as big as ours when we light, sometimes our fires are quite high, theirs was more low and slow burn, it’s different type of country.
We do night patrols here. They don’t do it over there, no night burns either. The mop up team goes around and checks it. I think the cold at night and dews means there’s no risk of the fire keeping on burning.’
While Alex shared her knowledge of cultural burning practices, this was not the only topic being talked about on the fire line.
‘It wasn’t just about fire,’ she said.
‘Some very powerful conversations were happening about traditional knowledge and history—from both sides.’
A big eye opener for Ranger Alex was seeing how much connection has been maintained by the Karuk tribe.
‘They are still very strongly connected to their land,’ she said.
‘They still do gathering on land and maintain their materials for baskets and weaving.
It was amazing to see them not only burning to reduce fuel loads and fire intensity, but also to manage their cultural lands to encourage growth of materials like shrubs for their weaving and open up spaces for elk to move more freely within the landscape.’
Rangers Alex and Evelyn were invited to a ‘community day’ where members of the Karuk tribe came and shared their knowledge of burning.
‘They showed us how acorns are processed and cooked salmon the traditional way,’ Ranger Alex said.
‘I made great connections that day.’
Staying on the banks of the Salmon River on one of the organisers’ properties, the Rangers set up their own tents and camping gear, totally immersing themselves with the surroundings. Ranger Alex said it was hot during the day, but still cold at night as they were heading into winter.
‘I couldn’t get used to the different terminology they used like Fahrenheit, and kept asking people to translate to degrees Celsius.’
Ranger Evelyn said she found the days quite cool still, being in their fall season, and at night ‘we kept asking for more sleeping bags—I ended up with 3.’
The future looks bright
Both Alex and Evelyn have high hopes for the future and look forward to bringing an Indigenous TREX to Australia.
Ranger Evelyn said she would ‘go back in a heartbeat’ and loved sharing her cultural burning practices.
‘They really liked hearing about how we burn, they like our way,’ she said.
They said can we come over there then—I said you can come any time.
They really want to learn how we do it over here. I showed them a video and our Girringun Fire Womens group and they said ‘wow’ this is very interesting’.
‘I was telling them how we have the Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network, who recently won the $1.8M Earthshot Award, how we all talk about what we do, how we can do it,’ Evelyn added.
‘They thought that was really great, because they don’t have anything like that. We’re still all talking and chatting.’
Ranger Alex said the connections they had made were beyond valuable.
‘It was very inspiring what they’ve achieved over there and to be able to bring that back to Australia would be awesome,’ she said.
‘It’s so important to have these events and to build connections that will continue to grow.’