Picture of man with grey hair starting fire with torch made of dry grass.

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. 

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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.

The blaze is just one of 53 that Warddeken’s rangers worked to suppress last year in the late dry season. Between August and December, fire is relentless. Tropical savanna is the most fire-prone landscape on the planet, and up to one-third of northern Australia burns every year.

But fire isn’t just the problem—here, it’s also the solution.

During the cool of northern Australia’s early dry season, when moisture lingered on the land, Nabarlambarl and his fellow rangers weren’t fighting fires; they were lighting them. From April to July each year, rangers walk hundreds of miles armed with drip torches, setting the land alight, and conduct prescribed burns from the air, dropping incendiary pellets from helicopters.

Moist vegetation, low winds, and lower temperatures at that time of year mean the fires they light are smaller and less intense, typically burning out overnight. If the land is burned gently, the wildfires that will inevitably come later won’t be as destructive. It also gives the rangers a fighting chance at extinguishing them.

Protecting the environment with fire, and from fire, is a role Aboriginal rangers take seriously. They are the land’s owners, its caretakers, and they have a deep, spiritual connection to it.

“I love being out on country,” Nabarlambarl says. It’s what made him become a ranger. It’s what brought him home.

Fighting fire with fire is not a new concept. Fire management is used by Indigenous people all over the world but has gained renewed attention. As the climate warms and wildfires become more extreme, forestry experts globally are calling for a return to traditional practices.

In Arnhem Land, lighting early dry-season fires was once systematic and widespread. Fire was used for hunting, for regeneration, for ceremony. Aboriginal elders say fire brings the land to life again; after a burn, the land is reborn. Even now, it’s common for Aboriginal people to deliver their own fire management—to see land that needs fire and simply take a match to it.

Like many Indigenous Australians, Terrah Guymala has been comfortable with fire since childhood. Now 56, he recalls lessons from his elders about using fire: to drive kangaroos toward hunters; to create smoke for rituals, particularly around death; to burn each type of vegetation at the right time of year. Guymala is a senior traditional owner for Manmoyi—one of the outstations in and near Warddeken’s 5,400 square miles (nearly the size of Connecticut). Owned by 36 clan groups, the area is managed through a complex system of customary law. “Back in the day,” Guymala says, “this land was full of people, and they used to manage the fire.” Land bereft of its people—“empty country,” he calls it—is why wildfires began consuming the landscape.

A kangaroo painting, in an x-ray style that shows organs, decorates the roof of a cave known as Manaamnam, one of tens of thousands of such sites in Arnhem Land.
A kangaroo painting, in an x-ray style that shows organs, decorates the roof of a cave known as Manaamnam, one of tens of thousands of such sites in Arnhem Land.

Guymala’s family, like so many others, moved away from their land, into missions and settlements in the years following colonization. His family came back when he was a child. Their return was part of the homelands movement that began in the 1970s, led by Indigenous leader and world-renowned Aboriginal artist Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek. Traditional owners like Nadjamerrek noticed that in their absence the country had shape-shifted. Non-native weeds and feral animals, such as cats and buffalo, had moved in; some native animals, such as emus, were scarcer; ancient bim (rock art) sites were being damaged by buffalo and fire; and the health of monsoon rainforests, floodplains, and the savanna was deteriorating.

Most worrying, the culturally and ecologically significant anbinik forests were in trouble. The giant, endemic trees—some living more than a hundred years—were once widespread in the landscape. Their sap was used as an antiseptic, their wood to make fighting sticks, and their shade as a place to shelter from the sun. Now anbinik exist only in natural fire refuges, such as gorges, or in strange, isolated clumps in the savanna. (The Disney Conservation Fund provided a grant to the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust to help Indigenous rangers protect anbinik trees. The Walt Disney Company is a majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

On a bushwalk in Warddeken, Maureen Namarnyilk calls out to people walking farther ahead. Yelling back and forth or following fires set by the leaders, group members spread out but follow the same course through the Indigenous protected area. Typically, young men walk at the front, hunting for buffalo, kangaroos, emus, or pigs, while families with small children bring up the rear.
On a bushwalk in Warddeken, Maureen Namarnyilk calls out to people walking farther ahead. Yelling back and forth or following fires set by the leaders, group members spread out but follow the same course through the Indigenous protected area. Typically, young men walk at the front, hunting for buffalo, kangaroos, emus, or pigs, while families with small children bring up the rear.

Traditional owners believed fire was the common thread. Arnhem Land was being ravaged by intense, uncontrollable wildfires that affected everything. They called for a renewal of strategic early dry-season burning. It would be a way of not just caring for country but also reconnecting with aspects of their culture.

“Land needs fire,” Guymala says simply.

Ancient practice became modern reality through a novel approach designed by Bininj, as western Arnhem Land’s Aboriginal people call themselves, along with non-Aboriginal people, known as Balanda. They combined customary knowledge on how, when, and where to burn with modern tools such as satellite mapping and helicopters to conduct aerial burning and drop firefighters into remote areas. In 2006 the world’s first savanna-burning carbon-abatement project began in western Arnhem Land, supported by the liquefied natural gas facility in Darwin, which was required to offset its emissions.

Aboriginal groups, including those in Warddeken, now participate in Australia’s carbon market, with polluters buying credits representing an amount of greenhouse gases kept out of the atmosphere. In some places, credits are sold based on how much carbon is stored in protected forests. That’s controversial in part because forests can burn down. But savanna burning works differently. Strategic fires in the early dry season, along with firefighting in the late dry season, limits wildfires, protecting forests and reducing the overall amount of smoke. The emissions avoided are sold as credits.

Indigenous groups now run about 80 savanna-burning projects in northern Australia, generating about $53 million a year in revenue. The approach has drawn overseas interest. A project in Botswana is in the pipeline, and fire ecologists say the methodology could work in Southeast Asia, as well as in Central and South America.

“It’s hugely innovative, it’s globally significant, and Indigenous people are, by far and away, at the pinnacle of it,” says Shaun Ansell, the former CEO of Warddeken Land Management, the Aboriginal-owned company that’s responsible for the protected area. “It’s putting so much investment back into remote communities where so few economic activities can happen.”

Using long-handled crowbars to probe the marshy grasslands, Warddeken rangers Rosemary Nabulwad, Arijay Nabarlambarl, Margaret Nabulwad, Janice Nalorlman, and Lorna Nabulwad spend a day off hunting for turtles burrowed into the mud. They’re a popular delicacy in Arnhem Land.
Using long-handled crowbars to probe the marshy grasslands, Warddeken rangers Rosemary Nabulwad, Arijay Nabarlambarl, Margaret Nabulwad, Janice Nalorlman, and Lorna Nabulwad spend a day off hunting for turtles burrowed into the mud. They’re a popular delicacy in Arnhem Land.

In western Arnhem Land, the results have been transformational. In 2004, before fire management began, 71 percent of the area burned, mostly in intense late-dry-season wildfires. By contrast, in 2020, 32 percent underwent strategic burning, containing wildfires after August to just 2.1 percent. That left 65.9 percent unburned, despite near-catastrophic fire conditions that year. Instead of thousands of blackened square miles, vast areas of leafy canopies remain unscorched.

As the vegetation benefits, so does the wildlife. Anecdotally, people have reported the return of many native animals, including emus. Ecologist Cara Penton says the results of Warddeken’s project to monitor species are still being collated, but cameras set out on the savanna to track small mammals often capture species her Indigenous colleagues haven’t seen for years. Northern quolls—small carnivorous marsupials classified as endangered—were an exciting find, she says: “People were really, really pleased to see the quoll was still here.”

“Nganabbarru!” Tinnesha Narorrga pulls the four-wheel drive to a swift stop on the red, dusty road. The 25-year-old ranger and two other women slide from the front seat. One grabs the rifle, and all three disappear into the bush, hot on the hooves of a small, retreating herd of buffalo. The Daluk Rangers are on the hunt.

Warddeken established the Daluk Rangers (daluk means “female” in the area’s Aboriginal languages) in 2017, and Narorrga’s mother, Suzannah Nabulwad, was a key player. “I saw my brother and the other men going out and thought, We can do that too,” she says. Employment would give the women independence. She helped get the program running, then when her daughter completed high school, she joined too.

The bush goes quiet, as if on pause, waiting for a gunshot that doesn’t come. As twilight settles in, Narorrga and the other rangers reemerge from the scrub empty-handed. Nganabbarru are faster than you’d think.

The Daluk Rangers are just one of Warddeken Land Management’s suite of ranger programs funded by carbon credits. These programs employ 240 Indigenous men and women across three ranger bases at the Mamadawerre, Kabulwarnamyo, and Manmoyi outstations. Being a ranger is a huge source of pride, especially for young women, like Narorrga, who otherwise likely would have to leave their traditional lands for employment in cities and towns.

Tabetha and Estella Nadjamerrek, who are cousins, fling heavy-duty matches, igniting small brush fires that will burn out on their own. Comfortable with fire, Aboriginal people use it in many aspects of their culture, including hunting and traditional ceremonies.
Tabetha and Estella Nadjamerrek, who are cousins, fling heavy-duty matches, igniting small brush fires that will burn out on their own. Comfortable with fire, Aboriginal people use it in many aspects of their culture, including hunting and traditional ceremonies.

Money from carbon credits allows rangers to undertake a variety of land management activities, including culling feral animals, like the buffalo that Narorrga was chasing. From July 2020 to June 2021, Warddeken’s rangers removed 2,336 feral animals, including 1,913 buffalo. The rangers also eradicate invasive weeds, monitor wildlife, and protect rock art. Traditional owners make all the decisions on how to manage the land.

“With the ranger program, you’re making that traditional knowledge and connection to country, and the history that surrounds it, valuable,” Ansell explains. “By being on country and being out there and engaged with it, it keeps it relevant in our modern society.”

Legs crossed, faces up, eyes wide, a scrum of schoolchildren sits on a bright blue woven mat under the shade of a rocky outcrop. It’s midmorning, and they’ve come by four-wheel drive down a dirt track from Kabulwarnamyo to Kundjorlomdjorlom, where the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area was dedicated in 2009. In front of them, in a rickety camp chair, is 89-year-old Mary Kolkiwarra Nadjamerrek, senior traditional knowledge-holder and the late Lofty Nadjamerrek’s wife. The rock walls are covered with painted images. It’s one of an estimated 30,000 rock art sites in the protected area.

Until recently, although around 50 children came and went from Kabulwarnamyo each year, the outstation didn’t have a school. Students had to travel long distances or live with family in bigger towns far away to get an education. In 2015 the community decided to use money from carbon credits to build its own school. It established Nawarddeken Academy, which has since opened schools in two more outstations. All offer a bicultural program giving equal weight to Bininj knowledge and the standard curriculum.

As the sun climbs in the sky, Kolkiwarra Nadjamerrek speaks to the students in the Kunwinjku language about connection to country and the importance of culture. When she finishes, she sweeps her arms outward, encouraging the children to look at the ancient artworks. They scatter, scaling rock walls and ducking beneath ledges. This is a history lesson at its best.

“We do the formalized literacy and numeracy in the classroom, but everything else we try to take it out bush,” explains Jodi Vallak, senior teacher at Kabulwarnamyo. She says basing her lessons on ties to country means the children are especially enthusiastic about class. “It does have that powerful narrative that it’s actually worthwhile learning.”

The importance of the schools is difficult to understate, Vallak says, as she watches her students explore their past. The boost in population brought about by the rangers triggered the need for schools, but now the schools are part of the attraction for people to return to country. Elders hope this generation will gain both the traditional knowledge and the education to create opportunities of their own here. The land needs their children and grandchildren to care for it.

In his khaki uniform, Terrah Guymala drags a chair onto the back deck of the Manmoyi ranger station. A hint of smoke has woven its way through the paperbarks and screw pines and settled in the air. In the days after the Deaf Adder Gorge fire, several more blazes have broken out on this side of the Indigenous protected area.

In the face of global warming, Guymala knows his work here is more critical than ever. He says Aboriginal people see the climate changing every day. “As a boy, we used to walk around and see big mobs of animals, and we had lots of rain. And we used to see everything was in time. But these days, it’s out of time,” he explains. “It’s meant to be green-plum season right now, but it’s out of time. It’s affecting everything—our lifestyle, our food season, our water.”

Guymala shoos a fly orbiting lazily around him and looks out at the bush. “It’s from people, not nature,” he says. “Nature is beautiful, innocent.”

Climate studies project that by 2050 Australia’s north can expect an average annual temperature increase of up to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a substantial rise in the number of days over 95 degrees, and longer fire seasons, with 40 percent more days of very high fire danger.

Despite these grim predictions, Guymala is hopeful. History and spiritual connection have brought many Aboriginal people back, but meaningful employment, family, and education are what will keep them here. He’s confident that by returning to country, they can restore what’s been lost. In Bininj hands, he believes, native animals will come back, dry creeks will refill, the seasons will resume their usual patterns. Perhaps even the mighty anbinik will flourish once again.

“If we respect our Mother Nature, she will listen to us, and it will come back to normal. We believe that,” Guymala says. “More talking to the nature, more singing to the nature. That is what will help.” 

Kylie Stevenson is the Darwin–based co-author of a book about Larrimah, a dying town in the outback. Matthew Abbott is a photographer based in Sydney who lived for two years in Arnhem Land. 

This story appears in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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