Life & Culture

Aboriginal rangers assess cultural sites in wake of bushfires

Walking in the Parma Forest, Yurta Yurta keeper Ralph Hume reading the stories of his ancestors.

It is engraved in the bark of the mighty Majella – Red gum – trace along the banks Jiella – Goulburn River.

A story of life, but more often than not, a story of loss.

Today, it is the latter – thousands of years of history and knowledge turned to ashes by one devastating forest fire.

“As a traditional guardian, it’s sad to see that,” he said, passing his hand over a black-colored box.

Ralph Hume walks the aftermath of a bushfire in search of signs of Aboriginal cultural sites.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

Indigenous rangers assess cultural damage

Mr. Hume is one of four Indigenous rangers tasked with evaluating cultural sites in the area in the wake of the bushfires.

It’s a new role, part of a joint management plan with Yorta Yorta Nations and Parks Victoria.

This is the next step in a nationwide move to better involve traditional owners in bushfire management.

Burnt gum tree leaves
Indigenous cultural sites can be destroyed in an instant by wildfires.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

Last week, Mr. Hume was called to his first fire.

Surrounding both sides of the jella, the fire devoured an area containing half a dozen ancient stigmata trees, as well as a cemetery.

“We also identified a site that has not been recorded but could contain cultural artifacts, which were used as a turning bay for vehicles.

“We caught the firefighters’ attention with this and moved the shift site to a different location.”

A man stands in front of the effects of a fire in the bush
The head of the Yorta team is the guard of Parma National Park, Ralph Hume.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

Firefighting practices ‘evolving for better’

Kneeling in the wake of the fire, Mr. Hume uses a stick to gently scrape the layers of ash.

His piercing eye quickly identifies holes left by local grub pits and the fine white flakes of quartz that were used to make stone tools.

Everything he does shows an appreciative respect for Waka – Earth – walks on it.

“When we take out our little buddies, they walk this country and they have no idea,” he said.

A man scrapes ashes with a stick on the ground
Ralph Hume, a yurta keeper, digs into the ashes of a wildfire.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

While growing up, Mr. Hume learned the traditional method of fires from his elders.

Initially working for Melbourne Water as a firefighter on the project, he saw a stark contrast between cultural burns and prevailing practices.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, we saw cultural sites destroyed, from control lines being set up at sites being burned – that was not appreciated at the time,” he said.

“Even if we can only save one site”

A man standing in front of a fire site
Parks captain Victoria Neville Wells said it was important to consider the areas’ cultural heritage when fighting fires.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

Mr Hume attributes much of this to accident monitors such as Neville Wells, who called him to the bushfires last week.

“I have felt so much pride and respect for him who actually made this call,” said Mr. Hume.

Mr. Wells, who shares Hume’s deep love for the earth, said she was a no-brainer.

“There is a lot of unknown history here,” he said.

Once the bush has cooled, Yorta rangers will return to assess it for any unregistered Aboriginal cultural sites.

“I am very excited to see what they might find,” said Mr. Wells.

Hope to prevent wildfires through cultural burning

In addition to protecting cultural sites during wildfires, Mr. Hume hopes to prevent these fires from occurring in the first place.

It promotes cultural burning – the regular burning of vegetation – which can greatly reduce the risk of wildfires.

It is a boost that gradually gains strength.

A man's hand holding a piece of quartz
The indigenous people could have used traces of quartz to make stone tools.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmaine Allison)

In the next three years, 35 traditional burns were scheduled via the traditional Yorta Yorta owner’s imprint.

“I am a traditional guardian of the Yorta Yorta people.

“This is my history, my country, and my responsibility — not just to protect, but to preserve and transmit.”


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