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In Australia's arid centre, ranger groups are working to protect the outback from climate change

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A desert ranger team in northern Western Australia are using cooler months to monitor jila and use right-way fire to keep its native title area healthy.

Ngurrara Rangers at Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation, made up of Walmajarri, Mangala, Wangkajungka, Jawaliny, and Mandijarra people, work in more than 77,000 square kilometres of land south of Fitzroy into Great Sandy Desert, to protect it from rising temperatures.

Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation country manager Kevin Tromp said climate change was a serious topic among rangers in the Kimberley.

It is a fact of life for these remote rangers that some jila (desert springs) which always had water have dried up in recent decades.

"Rangers monitor and clean jila to make sure its cultural and spiritual health, and its stories are talked about and passed on," Mr Tromp said.

"Some have dried up in recent years - it is quite worrying."

Another focus for the Ngurrara Rangers is the fire mitigation program, conducted during the cooler months.

Rangers use right-way fire, a traditional fire regime, to create 'cooler', small, patches of fire, scattered through spinifex land - a practice used by Traditional Owners for thousands of years.

It reduces the risk of massive fires sweeping through later in the year during hotter months, because it breaks up fire-prone areas into smaller patches.

Mr Tromp said big fires produced lots of carbon, and early season burns lessen this impact.

"It slows down the introduction of carbon into the air," he said.

Senior ranger Thomas Nnarda burning on country. Photo by: Tom Montgomery

"In the long run it reduces emissions."

Mr Tromp said in addition to climate benefits, the right way fire burns also protected habitat of native desert reptiles and marsupials.

"Animals can escape into these recently burned areas, wait for big fires to come past, and repopulate behind the fire front," he said.

Mr Tromp said rangers used long-term biodiversity surveys to track and document animal movement in the region.

Fitzroy-based Ngurrara Ranger coordinator Tim Lyons said rangers made fires along Canning Stock Route in May.

The track stretches nearly 2000km from Wiluna in the Goldfields to Halls Creek and, prior to COVID-19-forced community closures, was a popular drive for intrepid outback four-wheel-drivers.

Mr Lyons said rangers wanted to help country return to how it looked before modern human impact was noticeable.

"The whole idea is to try and replicate how country looked 100 years ago when indigenous people still walked around the desert, and before we started different burning practices," he said.

Mr Lyons said rangers dropped in from a chopper and conducted fire walks across landscape in small teams to find fire scars: land burned by fire in different years.

A Raindance incendiary machine on a chopper then puts more fire into some sections.

Mr Lyons said most fire work would finish soon, at which point rangers would then focus on mitigating wildfires and be on standby if something goes wrong.

It is well-publicised now how important jobs like these on-Country can be for Traditional Owners.

Senior Ngurrara ranger Thomas Nnarda is emblematic of this.

Mr Nnarda said he loved to look after country and be part of a team.

"I joined the team to look after grandfathers' country," he said.

"We look after plants, animals, and waterholes."

It is a job Mr Nnarda said gave him pride, particularly when cleaning important waterholes for his people and identifying native plants.

He said the team was strong and worked well together, and were now focusing on showing their young people the work rangers do.

You're in a team and you're good to country," Mr Nnarda said.

"We have a couple of young rangers, so they're learning from us.

"We show them what we do out in the country."

Part of that working includes engaging with kids who were "in trouble", and visiting schools, to take them out bush to learn about their home.

Ngurrara Rangers fire mitigation program is funded by the 10 Deserts Project and led by Indigenous Desert Alliance.

The project engages rangers across ten desert regions in globally significant arid lands home to more than 80 threatened plants and animals, as well as 50,000 years of continuous occupation by Indigenous people.

Mitigating threats such as invasive exotic weeds and introduced pests, non-traditional fire regimes, climate change and Indigenous people moving off country are priorities for the project.

Led by the Indigenous Desert Alliance, it aims to build the capacity of Indigenous groups to look after country for a range of economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes.

The project integrates contemporary natural resource management best-practice with traditional cultural and ecological knowledge to establish long-term financing a build environmental resilience across the desert landscape.

Ngurrara rangers and traditional owners at Canning Stock Route. Picture: Tom Montgomery

Ngurrara Rangers are part of more than 60 ranger groups across the Australian desert in the Indigenous Desert Alliance, of which Kimberley Land Council is an alliance member.

Northern possibilities principal consultant and incoming Desert Knowledge Australia chief executive Jimmie Cocking said this program created jobs for Ngurrara people on country.

"As climate change increases the length of the hot season, we need to adapt rangers' work practices over hotter summer months so rangers can keep working," he said.

"Rangers can do more training inside around technology use, and leadership programs."

Indigenous Desert Alliance chief executive officer Lindsay Langford said the alliance enabled ranger groups to share knowledge with each other about how they saw climate change affecting country.

"Groups go out on country with Ngurrara and learn from them," he said.

"Groups that have been around for 10 to 15 years and have advanced technology can pair with groups just starting out.

"Groups can also attend various events and forums that Indigenous Desert Alliance coordinates."

Mr Langford said when rangers shared knowledge it helped them work collaboratively to manage Australia's vast desert landscape.

Mr Cocking agrees rangers needed to be supported to stay on country:

"Rangers are the people on the ground, and the frontline of climate change. We have to make sure rangers are supported to stay on country - they play an important role," he said.

Mr Nnarda, for one, looks forward to keep working on country.

"I'm ready for anything," he said.

"Whatever job we're going to do next, like going out to the desert, I'm ready."

Story by Fierra Surrao

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