The Martu are one of the indigenous peoples of Australia's Western Desert cultural bloc. The traditional owners of an area of land larger than England, 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 that time.

In 2002, the Martu were granted native title to their land, bringing back their ancient practice and an unparalleled knowledge of the land at risk of further damage.

A Martu ranger executing small-scale burning as a means to prevent wildfire [Courtesy of David Wells]

Traditional land burning forms thousands of small, clear patches that can prevent large wildfires from taking hold.

The rangers burn only when the circumstances are ideal; this means cool weather and 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 the relatively few Aboriginal elders left who remembers using traditional land burning not only to prevent wildfires but also to hunt and encourage edible plant growth, a practice used in the days before the Martu made contact with European Australians. 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 wildfires before they take hold.

Editor's note: Archival footage and images from the 1960s used in this film are courtesy of Peter Pinkus and Jim Plumb, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa archive.

Jarrod Kadibil is one of a host of younger rangers learning their ancestors' ways to help save the land [Sylvia Rowley/Al Jazeera] 

Source: Al Jazeera