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Would Controlled Burns Help Australia Manage Massive Wildfire?


As Australia has been ravaged by one of its worst bushfire seasons in history, there is a lot of debate about controlled burns and the role that fire can play in managing fire. Aboriginal Australians used fire to manage brush lands and forests long before Britain started sending convicts to the continent in the 1700s. NPR's Jason Beaubien caught up with an Aboriginal teacher who just lost his home and camp to the raging infernos.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Noel Butler and his wife Trish used to run the Nura Gunya Aboriginal culture and education camp deep in a forest in New South Wales. But last week, an inferno swept through their canyon.

NOEL BUTLER: Up in front of us across there, that's what's left of our house. That was a two-story A-frame house, which I built.

BEAUBIEN: The inferno torched the camp, their house and the surrounding woods for miles.

N BUTLER: And what you can see now is nothing - not a single thing left. It's all absolutely, completely destroyed.

BEAUBIEN: The ground is now covered in powdery ash. Every tree trunk is charred black. Some of them still smolder. There's not a single green leaf left anywhere. So Butler is putting out hay for the kangaroos and chicken feed for the wallabies.

N BUTLER: Wallabies are like long-legged goats. They'll eat anything.

BEAUBIEN: Butler has also been burying kangaroos and wallabies that were killed in the blaze. But he's seen one large grey kangaroo still alive and the tracks of some wallabies. A few birds have returned. Butler and his wife used this place to hold camps and workshops on Aboriginal culture. They had a program for troubled Indigenous youth. School groups would come to learn about native art, history and food. Fire was a key issue they'd teach about.

N BUTLER: Fire in this place is our friend. Fire has been used to maintain, to look after this whole continent forever.

BEAUBIEN: Native peoples used what they called cool burns, low-intensity fires intended to balance the various plants and trees growing in an area.

N BUTLER: How we maintain that balance is through fire, by not letting any one thing dominate something else.

BEAUBIEN: The eucalyptus shouldn't be allowed to overrun all the other trees. If one shrub starts to take over a grassland, it should get burned back. Aboriginal people have generations of knowledge about managing the landscape on this continent, Butler says. But they're ignored by public officials who rely on massive back burns.

This week, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner defended the large-scale controlled burns firefighters have been using. There's been a torrent of criticism over the blazes. The clearly frustrated commissioner declared the burns are necessary to try to cut back the amount of fuel available for the next blaze.

But Butler says there's clearly a problem. Fires have been burning since October all across Australia, and officials say they could continue to burn for months.

N BUTLER: The place is heading for destruction. Nobody can deny. Nobody can say this is just - yeah, this is normal. It isn't.

BEAUBIEN: Australia had its hottest and driest year on record in 2019. Butler puts the blame squarely on humans by, in his words, not respecting Mother Earth, mismanaging the land and continuing to burn fossil fuels.

N BUTLER: I think this is a wake-up call not only for Australia but for the rest of the world. You cannot just destroy the land. You cannot destroy what keeps you alive.

BEAUBIEN: Butler's father told him a long time ago, he says, that the white man may have to destroy himself in order to save himself. And Butler is worried that now that may be coming true.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, New South Wales, Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF STANLEY COWELL'S "TRAVELIN' MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.