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.

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