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Mark Schuster, the Busking Fire Ranger

Those who visit the Organic Food Markets at St Ives Showground (held 8am to 2pm every Saturday) may be familiar with an entertainer there who plays the accordion. His name is Mark Schuster and he has a long history of playing and recording folk music around Australia, both solo and with accomplices at festivals and events.


Mark Schuster, the busking fire ranger

Mark Schuster, the busking fire ranger with his button accordion. Photo: Alec Smart

Teh busking fire ranger performs melodies from different genres and eras, especially those from his Germanic heritage, but he is also an archivist, and over many years he has been chronicling a wealth of fascinating material.

According to his LinkedIn profile, he has been “recording oral history research for 25 years and the resultant collection of my extensive fieldwork - celebrating the German-Queensland cultural contribution and also my German heritage - is housed in the National Library of Australia, Canberra.”

Mark unpacked his beautiful old button accordion, which, unlike a piano accordion, has buttons on the melody side, not piano keys. It differs from a concertina, with the buttons on the front, not the sides.

Button Accordion played by Mark Schuster

 A traditional button accordion - no piano keys. Photo: Bernard Loffet/Wikimedia

“German people are either good with music or metals, sometimes both,” he revealed. “Very musical, and they did wonders with the accordion. So I'm a bit of a ‘Last Man Standing’ of that German folk tradition.”


By ‘metal’ here of course he meant metallurgy?

“Metalwork,” he confirmed.

Not ‘metal’ as in heavy music - because Germans are good at that too!

“It's all heavy metal when you're a blacksmith!” he joked.

I recalled a trip to Hahndorf in South Australia, a historic town first settled by German-speaking immigrants in 1838. Now renowned as a popular tourist district, the architecture, restaurants and gift shops retain a distinctly German theme and the bars feature accordion players, often wearing traditional lederhosen (Austro-Bavarian leather shorts).

“I don't go that far!”

That was my next question!

“For me it's very dear this German tradition that I've kept going, and most of the music I play at the Showground is from that tradition.”

The busking fire ranger performs

 Mark in Surat, Queensland, interviewed by the ABC. Photo: supplied

Fire ecology

But Mark wears several hats, because, in addition to chronicling and playing historic folk music, he is also a Bushfire Planner and Ecological Scientist. Through years of detailed fieldwork and study, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge on Australian native environments and how bushfires impact on them.


In addition, he has a long history working with both New South Wales National Parks and Queensland Parks & Wildlife as a professional Fire Ranger and has advised and worked with federal, state and local government departments in environmental management and the complex field of bushfire planning.


Mark is the Strategic Fire Officer for Ku-Ring-Gai Council, a highly specialised role that combines his many skills in scientific research, consultation, community outreach and fire prevention.

Rural fire service boat at Ku Ring Gai

Rural Fire Service monitor a controlled burn at Cowan Creek, Ku-Ring-Gai Chase. Photo: Alec Smart


So, what does ‘bushfire planning’ entail?

“It is really centred on working out with the Rural Fire Service (RFS), NSW Fire and Rescue and National Parks and Wildlife Service what our best strategies are to stop the big wildfires that come through,” he explained.

“My big job is to work out how to protect the plants and animals which actually do need fire, but how to balance that with the human needs to minimise risk to people and property.

Particularly at the bushland / residential interface, of which Ku-Ring-Gai alone has about 100 kilometres.

“So, it's a balancing act between residential and human risk - minimising that risk - and also the fire regime for plants and animals. Because they do need fire.”


What do you mean by "needing fire", aren’t bushfires a destructive force?

“For the propagation of seeds,” he revealed. “Particularly banksias, persoonias, geebungs, grevilleas - they all need fire.

“Here at the St Ives Showgrounds, what we call the ‘sandstone ridge-topped woodland’ is full of these trees with tough wooden seed pods that need extreme heat before they open.

They're proteaceae, ancient Gondwanaland-type plants which have evolved to need fire in their cycling...”

Banksia spreads with bush fires

Banksia dentata has evolved to use bushfires to spread its seeds. Photo: John McPherson/Wikimedia


Have fire-reliant flora evolved by adapting to the burning regimes of Indigenous peoples?

“No,” Mark corrected. “Because the Aboriginal people arrived some 70 to 80,000 years ago, but before that these trees and plants slowly evolved for probably millions of years.”


So how have certain flora evolved to wait for a bushfire? It’s not a very reliable means to propagate; they may wait decades between fires while rivals (and predators that feed on them) might reproduce successfully many times over that time. What else started bushfires prior to the arrival of Aboriginal peoples?

“Lightning!” he declared. “Lightning was the main origin of the big fires that swept across the Ku-Ring-Gai region, probably every 15 to 20 years, and raze the country. Plants like the hakeas would open their pods and drop the seeds down into the ground. Then, when the rains next arrived, up grew the seedlings.

“However, it probably required 12 to 15 years for those seedlings to grow up into mature plants and trees and prepare the next generation of seed.”


As an adviser on bushfire awareness, what are his thoughts on prevention or protection?

“Look at all our houses,” he considered. “We build most of our houses on tops of the ridges around here, which isn't the best spot to place them. Because fires travel straight up a ridge; for every 10 degrees in a slope a fire will double in intensity. So, if you've got a 30-degree slope, you imagine, boom! Fires race straight up them!

“It’s to do with oxygen and the fuel load per layer, as a fire ascends. We call it 'fuel laddering' both horizontally and vertically – the fuel laddering effect.”


A fuel ladder or ladder fuel is a firefighting term for vegetation (either living foliage or dead leaves and branches) that provides the combustible material that enables a fire to climb from the lower landscape up into the tree canopy.


There has been recent talk about the reintroduction of Aboriginal Cultural Burning – fire management strategies employed by Indigenous peoples for millennia. How effective are they in diminishing bushfire risks, particularly around Ku-Ring-Gai?

“It does in certain areas,” he considered. “In Ku-Ring-Gai area they reckon cultural burning was mainly used along ridge tops for pathways to the sea. The original Mona Vale and Pittwater roads were Aboriginal pathways to the beaches that they would keep clear with fire.

“And also as access to their goanna grounds, where they'd harvest, so to speak, goannas and kangaroos. By keeping the grass growing, they could corral goannas in a certain area – sort of ‘farmed’ them!”


Goanna munching on a sausage. Photo: Alec Smart


He continued, “There are three fire-prone sides of Ku-Ring-Gai: Lane Cove in the west, Ku-Ring-Gai Chase, which is a huge area, to the north, and Middle Harbour to the south.

“We have to work out where do we strategically best light our hazard-reduction burns in these areas. Often we start them close-up against houses to try and drop the fuel load around them from about, say, 25 tonnes a hectare down to less than 10, because that will really reduce the potential destructive force of an advancing bushfire.


Climate Change and Bush Fires

“The main thing I’m up against, though, is climate change, because we're going to get more huge wind-driven fires in the future. Once you get a wind-driven fire, the beneficial effect of doing a hazard-reduction burn beforehand is a lot less, because it will just sweep through the canopy – bang, straight to your houses! This means, ‘future fire’, as we call it, may be a lot more tragic than what we're seeing today.”


There’s also much more risk of embers floating on the wind and landing on rooftops.

“85 per cent of Australian houses that are lost to bushfires are caused by wind-blown embers lodging and starting new fires.

“The trouble, too, with wind-driven fires, everyone thinks that planes can drop water in advance to slow their advance. However, you can't fly planes and helicopters in front of bushfires when winds are over 70km an hour. Too dangerous!

Bush fire dowsed by helicopter

Water carrying helicopters and planes can't douse bushfires in high wind conditions. Photo: Alec Smart


“When you've lost that ability in a wind-driven fire, they're big problems - particularly in the Hawkesbury region, where there is a huge fuel source, just 20km from where we are at the St Ives Showgrounds, if that!”

It’s approximately 33km by road from St Ives to Brooklyn, at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River, significantly less as the crow flies.

“As you can see, my job responsibility is huge! I'm trying to protect people whilst still managing suitable fires for the plants and animals that need them. It's lucky I'm a Libra because I like balance - I'm on the scales! But I'm a comedian too, as you can tell!

“So we have to learn to live with fire, that's the key to it. And as I tell people, who live around the edges where there is more risk of fire, ‘your life is more valuable than your property, so get out early!’ That’s also the Council's message: Get out early! If you know it's a catastrophic bushfire day, get out early and live.”




Mark Schuster, Fire Officer

Mark Schuster, Strategic Fire Officer for Ku-Ring-Gai Council. Photo: Alec Smart


By Alec Smart


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