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Wunambal Gaambera all fired up

Britney Coulson -

Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died.

After trekking through the bush with little more than a backpack and matchsticks, a five-day fire walk in Western Australia's northern Kimberley region has set alight the younger generation's passion for culture and traditional practice.

The Wunambal Gaambera people and Uunguu Rangers recently ventured out on their annual fire walk to burn Country the "right way" according to the Wunambal Gaambera seasonal calendar.

For young Uunguu ranger and Wunambal man Collier Bundamarra, this was his first time doing a fire walk. He said walking roughly 10 kilometres a day along the King Edward River from Munurru was a challenge.

"It was pretty hard ... but once you settle into the bush it's alright," Bundamarra said.

"We were throwing matches, keeping the land healthy."

Bundamarra is a Wunambal man from his grandfather's side; he says the walk was a special experience for him. His grandfather, who has passed away, walked the same Country several years ago.

"It feels like home, I belong out here. I feel more confident."

The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation Fire Management team told NIT this method of burning has saved bushland from wildfire damage.

In 2020, 18 per cent of Country was burnt the "right way" and as a result, only seven per cent of Wunambal Gaambera Country suffered damage from wildfire.

Australia is no stranger to bushfires, Uunguu ranger Jeremy Kowan said doing these targeted burnings during the cooler months of April to June, known in the region as Yurrma, will limit the damage from future wildfires.

"We burn slow, slow, slow to stop all that hot fire rushing, so it burns all over the countryside," Kowan said.

Aboriginal ranger Jeremy Kowan and Damon Bundamarra strategically burning parts of land. Photo supplied by Mark Jones, Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

Kowan says he and the other Traditional Owners on the fire walk felt a spiritual connection while out on Country; they felt protected each step of the way as they walked through the red dirt, topping their water up at the river and catching fish to eat.

"[When] burning we can feel our Old People, they would be proud of us. We are protecting our art sites; we didn't see any snakes, and no one slipped over those rocks," Kowan said.

Not only are they protecting the land from future fire outbursts, but Kowan said they also use this traditional burning method to burn a mosaic pattern pathway so the animals don't get trapped in the fire.

"Take notice of the animals. Just by looking at animals, like emu and kangaroos, if they are strong and healthy, we know the Country is healthy," he said.

The walks are led by a different family group every year and the Traditional Owners meet at the start of the year to decide the next location.

The Healthy Country plan put in place by Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation is focused on keeping both Country and culture healthy, with traditional fire burning a high priority. They have partnered with Bush Heritage Australia to maintain their goal.

By Britney Coulson

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