ABORIGINAL cultural burning is effective at fuel reduction and much less harmful to native plants an animals than bushfire is, according to new university research.
The "rare" study has been done in a zone set up near Guyra in NSW's north east by a team of Indigenous people from the Banbai nation and University of New England (UNE) researchers.
The threatened Backwater grevillea plant was monitored as part of the multi-year project, which included a surprise bushfire ripping through part of the area in 2019.
The research has established cultural burning had a relatively minor impact on mature specimens.
Lead researcher and UNE cross-cultural ecologist Dr Michelle McKemey said bushfire, hazard reduction and cultural burns reduced fuel loads almost equally but only the latter left a population of grevillia plants behind.
"It is more evidence that cultural burning practices have an important place in managing our natural heritage as we try and reckon with the effects of climate change," she said.
The initiative drew on Indigenous and scientific ways of thinking in order to investigate how cultural burning affected the local ecology, compared to conventional hazard reduction burning.
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Cultural burning usually involves small patchwork fires which are designed to support the various lifecycles of important plants and animals. In comparison, hazard reduction burns do not typically focus on managing specific species.
Bushfire unexpectedly became part of the project when the huge 2019 bushfires, which burnt about two million hectares of forest in the eastern states, penetrated the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).
The almost complete loss of mature plants showed the value of cultural burning as a tool for fire and species management, Dr McKemey said.
The wildfire lost some of its damaging intensity when it reached the zone of old cultural burns.
Dr McKemey said she hoped Indigenous people and ecologists are at the start of a collaboration that will see the return of widespread cultural burning to Australia.
Banbai rangers have been invited to undertake cultural burns in national parks and private properties.
On their own land, cross-cultural monitoring of the Backwater grevillea has been extended and will help to inform the adaptive management of the IPA.
"There are a number of cultural burns planned by different Aboriginal groups in the New England region this year," Dr McKemey said. "In some places it's the first cultural burn that has taken place for more than 50 years."
Banbai nation elder Lesley Patterson said the advantages of cultural burning are clear.
"You know your canopy and the older plants are going to survive if you do low intensity burns," she said.
"It does the country better, and the bush doesn't take as long to come back as it would with a bushfire."
Cultural burns are supervised by the Rural Fire Service (RFS).
The study was published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.