How Australia’s Aboriginal people fight fire—with fire

They’ve revived the ancient practice of planned burning to renew and preserve their homelands, and help support their communities.

Conrad Maralngurra starts a low-intensity blaze to protect his community in Mamadawerre, an outstation along the northern border of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area. In summer, lightning strikes routinely spark fires  in the tropical savanna. 

It’s first light, early November, near a place called Deaf Adder Gorge on the western edge of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area. Northern Australia’s tropical heat pummels Arijay Nabarlambarl as he jumps out of a helicopter and strides toward a fire. Low and snaking, the flames have scorched the bone-dry wetlands, leaving singed earth and black-socked paperbark trees. The 25-year-old falls in behind two other rangers, and a symphony of leaf blowers drowns out the crackle of fire. The trio methodically walks the perimeter, blasting leaf litter from the edges back onto the fire to keep it from spreading.

They’re one of three groups of Indigenous rangers in this remote pocket of Arnhem Land, about 160 miles east of Darwin, fighting a late-season wildfire, triggered by lightning, that has fingered off in several directions. In some patches the flames leap in tall spinifex grasses; in others they creep shin-high into the crevices of sandstone formations.

Nabarlambarl pauses to assess his section of the blaze. He’s been a ranger since he finished high school; the job gave him a chance to move from the town where he was educated back to his ancestral land. In the eight years since, he’s learned the fire stories from his elders, stories that span the tens of thousands of years his people have inhabited the land. He kicks at smoldering bark from the bottom of a tree, preventing the fire from gripping it. “It’s looking good because of the early burn and the creek nearby,” he explains. Nabarlambarl wipes his brow and gazes through the smoke. The land is home to a host of endemic and threatened species, including the black wallaroo, the northern quoll, and the white-throated grasswren. It brims with stunning waterfalls, rock formations, rivers, and unspoiled forests. Even though it’s burning, it’s undeniably beautiful.

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