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Burning to save Australia’s Western Desert – earthrise (feature)

June 14, 2017 9:12 am

The Martu are the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Western Desert cultural bloc. The traditional owners of those lands, the Martu practised small-scale “land burning” for tens of thousands of years. The burning encouraged a regrowth of diverse vegetation across the landscape that would then make large-scale bushfires less likely to occur.

However, as the last of the Martu were cleared off their lands by the Europeans in the 1960s, wildfires have once again devastated the landscape with as many as 18 animal species disappearing from the area since then. In 2002, the Martu were once again granted native title to their land, bringing back their ancient practice and an unparalleled knowledge of the land at risk of further damage.

Land burning forms thousands of small clear patches that can prevent large wildfires from taking hold. The rangers only burn when the circumstances are ideal; this means cool weather and green vegetation that is still green from the rains. This ensures that any ignited fires go out before gaining unwanted traction.

Waka Taylor is a ranger and one of relatively few Aboriginal elders who remembers using fire not only for land burning but also to hunt. He says, the transfer of knowledge is a vital part of the practice too.

“I take them out and teach them so they can continue the practices of their ancestors,” says Taylor of the younger rangers. “This is how our old people lit their country in bushman days, creating burnt areas so bushfood can regrow and for hunting.”

“We leave the knowledge with you,” he says to ranger Jarrod Kadibil.

Rachael Hocking travels to the Western Desert to spend time with a group of Martu rangers on a fire programme set to stop the wildfires before they take hold.

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