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Small town mentor to leading cultural burns in California


Rural Fire Service (RFS) Crew Leader Kylee Clubb joined the Tinaroo Rural Fire Brigade in 2017 because she wanted to help motivate young people in her small town of Malanda on the Atherton Tablelands (Ngadjon and Wadjanbarra Yidinji country).

“We have a lot of young people unsure of what they want to do, so a group of us joined our local brigade, Tinaroo Rural Fire Brigade, to show our young people they have so much to offer the RFS, and the RFS has a lot to offer us as well,” Kylee said.

“At first it was daunting but I met some inspirational and amazing brigade members and our young people started to attend. It helped build their confidence and to show perseverance and build their confidence and social skills.” 

Kylee is also a director with Gambir Yidinji Cultural Heritage and Protection Aboriginal Corporations and the Female Co-Chair of the Firesticks Alliance. In 2020 she completed a cultural burn alongside Buluwai Elders and Djabugay Rangers in Buluwai Country as part of the ABC documentary series Big Weather.

Since Tropical Cyclone Jasper in December 2023, Kylee has also become a Community Support and Recovery Officer with Echo Empowering Services in Malanda. 

By supporting cultural burning and listening to the diverse voices and experiences of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) can build greater resilience in our community.

Kylee said to perform a cultural burn out on country a traditional owner of the local area, who has knowledge and practised fire and was taught by their elders, must be present.

“This is the start to revitalisation of the fire knowledge and it’s also a way to build strong relationships not just with traditional owner groups but within our community, and get to know the communities we work in,” she said.

“Local people help you take into consideration what is located within that area and what they may want to protect, such as cultural heritage sites like weaving grasses for cultural continuance, rock art, ceremonial places, scarred or carved trees. This may consist of tangible and intangible sites.

“We don’t use drip torch fuel to accelerate the burn – we want the burn to move through slow enough so animals get away. The cooler burn will help trees regenerate and seeds to strike beneath the soil making sure the impact of the fire is low on the soils and canopy.

“We allow the trees to get used to the fire and make them stronger and more resilient for the seasons to come.”

Kylee said her brigade takes a holistic approach to cultural burns and wants to make others aware of the benefits it can have on our environment.

“It makes me and my brigade at Tinaroo feel socially and emotionally well, knowing we did a good job by taking the steps to apply fire appropriately.

“Just like any tool, you can feel when you are using it right, or when you’re using it recklessly by the way you apply it,” she said.

“Being a cultural fire practitioner compliments my work with the RFS. We can work alongside each other by having cultural diversity and building cohesiveness within our brigade and sharing different views on how we can better manage fire together, because fire is everyone’s business.”

A California exchange

In 2022, Kylee joined First Nations female firefighters from several countries in the remote Klamath Mountains of California, where women have traditionally performed cultural burning, to share knowledge and perform the first cultural burn for 200 years.

The Women in Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) was an intensive 12-day event hosted by the Karuk Tribe.

“The training included a pack test before leaving Australia to make sure we were physically fit and ready for the field trips, workshops and discussions, as well as presentations from cultural fire practitioners and basket weavers,” Kylee said. 

Despite some initial fears of falling trees, bears and rattlesnakes, they had an incredible experience.

“We camped in tents for a fortnight along the Klamath Mountain where the salmon rivers run beautiful and crystal clear – a bear-loving environment,” Kylee said.

“It was cold nights and warm days. The sky was so clear and you could see all the stars on the other side of the world. 

“It was during an important ceremonial time for Karuk people in the centre of the universe World Renewal Ceremonies. These ceremonies are performed to keep the earth in balance and pray for all living things by the Karuk people, in their landscape.

“We were working on hilly and rugged areas, in forests prone to drought, infestation and catastrophic wildfire.

“It was breathtaking. But take a closer look and you could see heaps of decades of logging, fire suppression and overcrowding in the forest.”

Kylee said the Karuk people were very welcoming. 

“Karuk people are very warm and beautiful people, quiet, strong and resilient. We spoke to their elders and learnt about the importance of their cultural practices and what had changed from when they were younger.

“The basket weavers have been advocating for traditional ecological land management for many years.

“Legislation and fire exclusion policies have prevented the Karuk people from practising cultural burning, but their fire stewardship remains strongly connected to generational systems of knowledge that are deeply grounded in spiritual practice.

“For many thousands of years before, during and after European colonisation, Indigenous tribes have lived in the forests, lighting fires to manage landscapes and ecosystem mosaics, enhance habitat, produce food and basketry materials, clear walking trails, reduce pests and support ceremonial practices.

“I came to appreciate what the Karuk people have to do to get in and out of their forest and lay water lines down due to the vast landscape. 

“We worked in a fur pine forest that was highly flammable and we carried a 20-kilogram backpack, fire blanket and tools with us at all times. 

“In return we shared with them how we work in our crews, why we have smaller vehicles to manoeuvre in and out along the fire lines, how we use water on the ground and so on.

“In Australia we’ve started to see change within cultural burning practices, but we still have a long way to go. 

“Based on the amount of research into the benefits of cultural burning and monitoring and the importance of preventing larger fires from getting away, cultural burning has a place.”