After the mega-blaze

After the Gospers Mountain fire of 2020, Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation is working hard to heal country and communities near Lithgow.

Lithgow, New South Wales: In late 2019, members of the Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation near Lithgow were worried. The mega-blaze known as the Gospers Mountain bushfire was roaring towards them, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

Elder Helen Riley, one of 4 directors of the corporation, received a phone call from a local member of the Rural Fire Service (RFS): ‘The fire is heading our way and we don’t know if we can save Maiyingu Marragu.’

Ancient ochre art on an overhung rock cliff face

13,000-year-old ochre rock art in the Maiyingu Marragu reserve. Photo: Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation.

Protecting

A protected area with great significance for Wiradjuri people, Maiyingu Marragu—or ‘the hands’ as it is also known—is a series of caves within a reserve of 1500 acres near Lithgow. One cave contains the ochre rock art that gives the place its name; others are significant because of their history as a birthing place, a women’s place, or a men’s place.

For Aunty Helen, helping to save Maiyingu Marragu was intense:

I went out with the RFS crew to do protection work for the rock art sites to avoid major impact from the fire—we only had few hours to get the task done. It was a horrific, frightening thing. Later, my daughter Sharon was contacted by Forestry NSW and asked for advice on what they could do for site protection throughout the area. We didn't hear anything for few days, but when RFS called back they thanked me as the advice given by Sharon was the main contributor to saving the rock art sites. It was a very proud moment indeed.

Sharon Riley, who has fought fires for more than 20 years, describes the challenges of the situation:

Ideally we'd have been doing more cultural burns in the area before then. That’s a better way of doing fire management. Then after the fires we had unprecedented thunderstorms, which hammered the landscape and destroyed the main road in the reserve. There was a lot of work to be done. The damage meant the place had become unsafe for people to visit. Then we heard about the [NSW government] Bushfire Community Recovery & Resilience Fund and applied for grant money to get started on a recovery project.

Voicing

Caring for country and improving land management practices have been a focus for Mingaan since it was established in 2008, filling a much-needed gap for the community. As Aunty Helen says:

Mingaan was set up after a gap of several years with no local organisation to give a voice to the local Aboriginal community. We wanted to start something that would support our people and create jobs. We’re a small organisation with about 50 members and our success has been built on lots and lots of hard work.

Members of Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation standing proudly on country

Members of the Mingaan Wiradjuri community celebrate completion of stage one of their bushfire recovery project. Photo: Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation.

Mingaan has also benefited from members' growing skills in governance, coupled with their commitment to country and culture. Sharon explains:

We have experienced other corporations that didn’t work so well and have brought that learning to Mingaan. A lot of our work is done via grants and we have become very good at monitoring all our activities closely to make sure we stay on track. The natural environment and culture go hand in hand. We like to focus our work on cultural conservation and education. We’re always involving ourselves in projects that are about looking after country.

Healing

Aunty Helen Riley with a mic in front of a large tree trunk

Aunty Helen Riley speaks about the bushfire recovery project. Photo: Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation.

The bushfire recovery project began in 2020 and the first of 2 stages was completed in November 2021. Getting the community together to do the work has been an important part of the process.

‘It’s been a healing thing,’ says Aunty Helen. ‘If you don’t heal the land you can’t heal the people.’

Sharon detailed some of the work: ‘We fixed up the access road that had been washed out. We fixed up the main car park, and replaced the steps leading up to ‘The Hands’. We also added about 350 metres of bollard fencing the help put a stop to illegal rubbish dumping. We put up some picnic tables too, and it’s nice to see families out there now enjoying the beauty of the place.’

For Sharon, the recovery project was an opportunity to share knowledge of culture and country with contractors brought in to help with the restorative work:

Each day was a journey. These guys drive machines that can be really destructive, but because they were operating in a protected cultural area, we had to talk with them about doing things differently. We came across a place where reckless campers had left a campfire in a place where Wiradjuri people would normally do a ceremony. So we worked together to clear the campfire and replace it with a ceremony circle.

Now, there are many species of animals living in that reserve and there are plenty who are not native to that place. I’m a tracker so I’m always looking out to see what’s there. After we put down the sand for that ceremony circle, I drew a goanna in the sand, and three days later three goannas appeared on the worksite. The workers were surprised to see that. They were looking for a carcass or something that might have attracted them. But I said no, they came because of that drawing in the ceremonial circle.

Almost all of the workers on the project had special things like that happen to them and they really took the cultural message close to heart. If you look after country it’ll look after you. The spiritual connection adds value to how and why you look after country.

Stage 2 will include an Aboriginal mental health first aid training course, tree planting as part of community day out, native bee workshops, and cultural burn workshops. Mingaan hope to have it completed by mid-2022.

Ranging

Sharon Riley crouched in grassland, watching a cool-burn fire she has lit

Sharon Riley helps out with a cultural burn near Lithgow. Photo: Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation.

Mingaan has big plans for the future, including a cultural centre and rangers program to provide jobs for the community and teach visitors about land management, conservation and cultural awareness.

‘The ranger program is an important one for us,’ says Aunty Helen. ‘We are looking around for funding at the moment. We really want to use it as a way of providing more employment for local Aboriginal people.’

Sharon elaborates on why it's so important, and some of the connections and benefits that could spark from it:

We’re thinking about what can be set up for future generations. We want to provide jobs with meaning. The ranger program will be a great way to boost people’s confidence, give them skills they can be proud of.

We’d like to have a native nursery and once our people have worked there they can apply for jobs in places like forestry and feel confident doing that.

One idea with the cultural centre is for it to have a bush café so we can include education and training for food and beverage preparation and serving. We can also get the community working in the garden and promote healthy eating and living.

Educating

Mingaan is dedicated to sharing its knowledge of country with associated communities, as Sharon explains:

We do a lot of site awareness training for local businesses and with government as well so people can develop a deeper understanding of our culture and how we care for country. People are looking at better ways of doing things, especially around fire management. Our landscape is highly prone to bushfires areas and people need to learn to live with fire. So we’re continually educating people. Last night we did a healing ceremony for a community near here where people are still struggling to move forward after the fire.

Self-determining

For Aunty Helen, community control is fundamental to the corporation's purpose: 

One thing I know is that community is best placed to set up programs that will work for that community. They know what’s best for them. If you want positive outcomes, work with the community. It’s rewarding when you see good results and you know you’ve done it on your own terms.