Indigenous advisor profile: Oliver Costello - Healing Country with cultural fire

Indigenous advisor profile: Oliver Costello - Healing Country with cultural fire

Wednesday, 02 September 2020

My name is Oliver Costello, and I’m a Bundjalung man. I was born in Byron Bay and grew up around the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

As a child, I developed a real appreciation for Country through exploring, camping, hunting and catching fish. My parents were strong about my identity, and made sure I knew I was Aboriginal, and connected me with Elders and communities. As a teenager and young adult, I had many troubled years finding my way in the world. About 15 years ago, my mother married Billy Yalawanga, an Elder from Arnhem Land, and they moved to live with our family in New South Wales. Billy grew up on Country and had a huge amount of cultural knowledge. This is when I really began to learn and get enthused about cultural fire management. We spoke about living on Country, and he became a positive influence on my way of thinking about how to support living on Country and how to care for Country with fire. This was just what  I needed at that time in my life.

Sharing knowledge about Country

In 2008, I started a degree in Adult Education and Community Management at the University of Technology Sydney. It put me on a steep learning curve about community education and development. In 2009, I was the first Aboriginal person to complete the Centre for Sustainability Leadership fellowship program in Sydney. Jason De Santolo (Indigenous researcher and lecturer) became a mentor and asked me to come and work on a media project. This is when I met Victor Steffensen (Indigenous fire practitioner) and Jacqueline Gothe (design lecturer). As we were walking together, Victor shared knowledge about burning Country – and all of the things that I had been thinking about for years started to come into focus.

We discussed ways in which to do it, and how to address the cultural protocols, fire planning and government regulations to bring cultural fire back to Country. This is when the original “Firesticks” project was started in  New South Wales. Since then, it has been an amazing journey of connecting and sharing knowledge with people and Country.

Oliver conducting cultural burning at Dorrobee Grasslands Reserve, New South Wales. Image: Sian Hromek

The good fire

Firesticks has now grown into a movement for change, and the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation was incorporated in 2018. Since then, it has been a journey of fire workshops, training programs, advocating, raising funds and responding to the huge interest created by the 2019–20 bushfires. Firesticks Alliance partners with diverse communities, landholders, agencies and institutions across the continent. Together we are identifying pathways to apply cultural fire to landscapes and to help heal and care for Country, and empowering communities through mentorship and shared understandings that are improving fire management in Australia.

The recognition of cultural fire is growing rapidly, but we still need a lot to change to realise the full benefits of cultural fire. I look forward to seeing more people experience the good fire across the Country, and hope that you and many others will see the healing of people and Country in practice.

Further information

Oliver Costello -

Top image: Oliver Costello. Image: Vera Hong

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