Michelle McKemey is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of New England (UNE) with support from the Firesticks Project and an Australia Postgraduate Award Scholarship. The research project is entitled Cultural Burning: Using Indigenous practice and science to apply fire strategically and involves investigation into Indigenous cultural knowledge associated with fire management as well as ecological experiments to improve our understanding of the ecological impacts of fire in the landscape.
Michelle is working closely with the Banbai nation at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area to monitor the ecological and cultural changes associated with reintroducing fire after a long period without fire. The Banbai rangers have identified two species that are important to them that they wish to monitor. These target species include the culturally significant echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), as well as the threatened black grevillea (Grevillea scortechinii) which is found only near Wattleridge and its surrounds. Michelle and the rangers have developed methodology to monitor these species together, before and after fire, to see how they change when the landscape has been burnt. Pre-fire monitoring occurred in 2015, followed by fire being implemented in August 2015. Post-fire monitoring is underway in August-September 2016 with analysis of data and preliminary results to be completed shortly afterwards.
In addition to the two-way ecological monitoring mentioned above, Michelle is undertaking Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) monitoring of two fires in similar vegetation communities. One of the fires is the one mentioned above, at Wattleridge IPA- this was a low intensity, small scale (approximately 2 hectares), patchy Indigenous led burn during August 2015. Prior to this fire the land had not been burnt for several decades. The second fire is in nearby Warra National Park. This fire was a moderate intensity, large scale (415 hectares) burn during October 2015 led by National Parks and Wildlife and the Rural Fire Service. Prior to this fire the land had been burnt relatively recently, it had only just come ‘into threshold’, that is within the minimum interval recommended for burning of sclerophyll forest. Michelle’s BACI experiment is collecting data on the changes to ground covers, shrubs, trees, logs, fuel hazard and the targeted species (echidna and black grevillea) before and after each of these burns.
Using the results of the ecological experiments, literature review, observations and cultural knowledge gathered through interviews, the research project will produce two ‘fire and seasons calendars’. The first is developed in collaboration with the Banbai nation for Wattleridge IPA and will feature biocultural indicators which tell us when it is the right, and wrong, time to burn. A draft of this calendar has already been published and is entitled ‘WINBA = FIRE’. As our knowledge grows, we will continue to update the draft- the next version is due to be released in early 2017.
The second fire and seasons calendar is being developed with the Ngukurr community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. This calendar also features biocultural indicators- which are very different in the northern savanna landscape. Through interviews with traditional owners of the proposed South East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area, Michelle and her indigenous collaborators will develop a calendar which uses cultural and scientific knowledge to guide fire management. Michelle visited Ngukurr during the 2016 fire season to participate in burning with the Yugul Mangi rangers and will visit again in future to present them with the first draft of the fire and seasons calendar.
As the cultural and ecological values and impacts of fire can take a long time to manifest, this is (hopefully) a long term research project. Michelle commenced her PhD in 2014 and plans to finish in 2019, although the research could continue well into the future.
A short presentation by Michelle can be viewed here.
The Winba = Fire calendar and Blank Template of the calendar are available to download here
The Cultural Burning: Using Indigenous practice and science to apply fire strategically research project is supervised by Prof. Nick Reid (UNE), Dr Emilie Ens (Macquarie University), Dr John Hunter (UNE), Dr Mal Ridges (Office of Environment and Heritage), Mr Oliver Costello (Firesticks Program Coordinator) and Ms Lynn Baker (Office of Environment and Heritage NSW). Project collaborators include the Banbai Enterprise Development Aboriginal Corporation and Ngukurr community. Scholarships and grants have been gratefully received from the Australian Postgraduate Award (Australian Government through UNE), Firesticks Project (Nature Conservation Council of NSW), Northern Tablelands Local Land Services (through the National Landcare Programme), Keith and Dorothy Mackay Postgraduate Travelling Scholarship (UNE) and Ecological Society of Australia.