Cool burning yarn

Aunty Kali (born Marcia McBride), Gullibul elder
Aunty Kali/Marcia McBride. Photo: Jodie Harris

The first time I knew about fire was as a youngin. My dad, Poppy Lionel, was in the forestry at Anamoor State Forest and he taught me how to use the two-way radio and climb the tower out at Jimna. He and I would watch, and if there was any fire then we could alert people that it was coming and they could save the forestry plantation. 

Dad and I got trapped in a fire there one time. The wildfire come through and I was missing in action, just off on this random track. I come out of the bush and Dad was flying along in the ute, saying, ‘Get in, get in!’ and I could smell the smoke. I started to panic. There was this koala, this boorabee, and I just grabbed it by the neck and chucked it in the car. He started panicking, and Dad got all scratched up in there.

We put him in a tin bucket, named him Blinky Bill. Mum made up some plaster of Paris and stuck that on his feet until they healed. When he wasn’t clinking around, he was free to go. We just let him go back where he come from. Just took him back to that track. Dad let him out and off he went. 

It made me think about how the animals coped out there. Dad explained to me that that was nature. I was about four. 

After that I started to wonder then, How could I protect the animals in the bush? I started to go out on the land and assess what it was and what was going on – how that koala lived, how it survived. I went into the forestry office. I found an old rusty bucket and some masking tape and I’d just go out and I’d pick flowers and bring them home to Dad and try and work out what flower was what. Started with lantana camara, and I’d bring it home and I’d say, ‘What’s this dad?’ He’d go, ‘It’s lantana.’ Then I noticed how it was encroaching in that area, the ones that I thought was overtaking I’d just pull out and hang them up in the tree. Then I’d sit there and wait for the boorabee to come, and I’d listen to the animals. I made my peace with nature that day. If I looked after her, she’d look after me. That was our agreement.

During the 2019/2020 fires we were stuck in Kyogle. I was worried about all the animals and all the people. It was scary. It was horrific. It was fast. It was jumping fire breaks.

Rainforests were burning. And that’s what was scaring people. The actual rainforests was burning, and cut through Paddys Flat area, coming from the other side of Jalgumbun (Mount Lindesay). They were telling us that it could run all the way to Uki if something wasn’t done. Forestry was saying, ‘We’ve bulldozed ten to twelve metre firebreaks, and it’s just jumping them’. Helicopters come, and then that big plane come and dropped a big load on Woodenbong to cut it off at the pass. The ones at Wallaby Creek who had done their cultural burning prior to that felt a little bit safer. Some people lost their whole properties. And it was just unstoppable. 

I felt really helpless. Because I knew I should have burned a lot more country and reduce the hazard to protect the animals. I was really heartbroken at the devastation. I felt helpless as a First Nations person. I hadn’t really done good enough.


I’d been trained in cultural burning by Uncle Victor Steffensen – proper name Mulong – and the Firesticks Alliance. The way Uncle Victor described the relationship that I had with the country made me feel normal, that I wasn’t gonna get locked up and put in a straitjacket because I could hear and see things on country that I didn’t think other people seen. 

He taught me how the country is in relationship with each other. All of the old mother trees and the father trees, they’re the old big ones with habitat holes in them, and they’re the ones that we want to protect. The way we do that is the cool slow burning; prep your area, maybe rake out the big mother trees. The ones in the next layer, they’re all cousins, and then the grass on the bottom, he’s related to all of those people. And you’re looking at the soil down the bottom. All of that’s country. Everything in that is related. If you take one thing out of that, then you have created an imbalance. And what’s happened is fire’s been taken out of the landscape and it’s been replaced by wildfire, instead of cool burning. 

In a cool burn you want white smoke. You don’t want it running up into the trees, you don’t want the vine to carry it up into the canopy. You just want it to be nice and low and slow, and it should just creep along. You need a certain amount of wind. You need some moisture in the soil. Because there’s a window of opportunity of cool burning, and it moves pretty quick. With the climate changing, it’s really difficult to know what the weather is gonna do. So, you need to assess the slope of the ground, where the fire is going to run to, how far it’s going to run. You need to assess the species of the grasses that are on the ground. All that tells you how fast or how slow it’s going to run. The wind plays a big factor in the way that you need some sort of wind to carry that along nice and slow and low. If it’s too windy, it brings up the sparks and that’ll spark it in another spot.

During a burn I go out three days prior to the event and light a small signal fire for the animals. The animals go, ‘Ah, smoke! Evacuate!’ I go out the next day round about the same time, maybe half an hour later and a light a little signal fire and they go ‘Oh, she’s back. Smoke! We’ll evacuate. We’ll assemble over here.’ When I come to do the burn, I announce myself and they know that smoke and they go, ‘Here we go. It’s on! We’ll all evacuate,’ and I’ll leave a spot for them to evacuate to. By the time it slowly burns, they can walk on the ground, the animals start coming back and the white smoke’s still there. 

First that comes back will be the goanna. Next one who will come back will be the insects. Next one will come back will be the birds. And they’re telling everybody else, ‘This is clear, this is clear!’ And the regrowth, the little shoots come back. Then the wallabies and the kangaroos and everything settle in the bush, but it’s starting to regenerate. It’s like Christmas Day for them; they’ve got plenty of tucker, new growth, and they’ll be sustained. So long as they’ve got water, they’re gonna be alright for a little while. Animals don’t have a watch, so they don’t know when you’re coming, so that’s why you’ll just let them know what’s going on. And they tell all their friends, they tell the koala and he’ll just wait up in that tree because he knows that the fire’s not gonna climb it. There’s a different smell to that white smoke than there is to the black smoke. And the goanna and the animals, they’ll just hide around and watch you in that other spot. And then as soon as that fire’s gone through, they’re back on the black.

I don’t know how it happens really, but the smoke rises and even though there’s not much wind, the trees and the leaves are all dancing, coming alive from the white smoke. The white smoke sends out stuff into the leaves and it just sways, and it’s like it takes a big deep breath and then lets it out and it’s all cleansed. If the trees don’t dance, then I think I’ve got it too hot. 

By the time it slowly burns, they can walk on the ground,
the animals start coming back

After the 2019/2020 fires I did a cultural burning for the Bindarrabi Community at Koreelah. The wildfire came within five Ks of their community, and they were really scared of the fire, and what I was about to do, they had great concerns about it. And you could totally understand that after what we’ve just been through. And the fear was, Is that gonna get out of control? 

They wanted to learn, but they were fearful of what happened when I struck that match. What comes next? And the comments were, ‘Aunt, you got no shoes on. You know you should be in full PPE.’ And I’m trying to explain it’s just going to come along this way. And there’s going to run into that green bit and then it’s going to go out. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure because I’m on the window of my opportunity. And the wind’s not going to change today. And I’m gonna start and I’m gonna do it this way.’ 

There’s so much that goes into the organisation and then planning of it, and even then, you can turn up on that day, and the wind has picked up and or it’s gone too dry or it’s gone too green, and then you have to call it off. And then you have to wait until next season. But in the meantime, that’s all built up again. And the community is then panicked again, because you’ve got another fuel load. 

Aunty Kali at a cultural burn workshop at Afterlee. Photo: Jodie Harris

A few people from the Community come down and joined in the burn, and then they went back and they told the others. And then a couple more turned out for the next one, and a couple more turned out for the next one, and so on until most people within that community understood that I wasn’t creating a hazard. I was saving them for the next bushfire season. 

But once they seen that the fire can just go nice and slow and low, and there’s only smoke for ten minutes and it’s white smoke that the land needs. And now they’ve seen how it’s regenerated. And all the little natives are coming up, and they’re a lot safer than what they were prior to that. They’ve also, thanks to that grant, got a quick spray unit. So that, you know, if the fire does impinge on them, at least they’ve got a fighting chance.

The Bindarrabi burn was empowering. I burnt that area on behalf of my ancestor women of the Richmond River and Granny Eva Combo, and on behalf of Millie Boyd, for the Boyd family, at Boyd country out there. And when I got there more women were there and, you know, the signs come, the eagle come. And it was just the right time, the right place. And the right moment. It was a moment in time that changed me and made me feel more confident about what I was doing. And it meant that the non-Indigenous people were open to that conversation. And as Indigenous people, First Nations people, we need to be leading. We need to come together and lead.

The fire didn’t go around First Nations people
It didn’t go around white people
It took us all out as one

People felt quite healed by clearing that land. At first I thought it was just an unblocking of Indigenous people. Because the Fire Spirit is in us. It’s just lost. But that happens to white people too, they feel a deep connection with Mother Earth at that point. Then they look back and they go, ‘Gee, that’s going to regenerate really well.’ 

At the end of the day, the fire didn’t go around the First Nations people, it didn’t go around the white people. It took us all out as one. So we’re one voice. And that’s part of the dream for me for the future is that we all come together as landholders and non-Indigenous people and have the conversation. How do we protect these areas? How do we protect our threatened species? 

There’s a big move towards resilience and recovery, but will we recover by the time the next one hits us? And that’s the question every time we hear the rain, or every time we smell the smoke, we wonder what’s going to happen, you know – the town’s packed with people panic-buying, and we’ve just had an overnight shower. 

My hope for the future is that we are one voice for living Earth, that the jobs are created for our future generations, that the youth lead the world, that everyone takes the time to listen to country, that what is old is new again, that we can gel our techniques together which will lead the next generation into a safe and prosperous future. 

So let the cool burning technique yarn continue. Boogelbah. Thank you.

Uncle Andrew Johnston and Aunty Kali. Photo: Jodie Harris