All-Female, All-Indigenous Fire Brigade Defends Remote Settlement in Southeast Australia
With their community tinder-dry, and most of their menfolk disinclined to pitch in, it is the women of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust in southeast Victoria, Australia who are rallying to protect 5,000 hectares of forest, 200 permanent residents, and a wealth of sacred artifacts from the region’s terrifying bushfires.
Australia’s first all-female, all-Indigenous fire brigade, the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust Country Fire Authority (CFA) Brigade was actually “born almost two decades ago after a spate of deliberately lit fires threatened the tiny township,” reports Australian Women’s Weekly magazine. Recognizing that outside help was “a potentially disastrous 45-minute drive away,” Charmaine Sellings and her friends Rhonda Thorpe and Marjorie Proctor asked Victoria State CFA officials “to train them up to protect the culturally significant land”. Going door to door in their tiny, isolated settlement, the three women convinced five more to sign up for the inaugural brigade.
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Today, as wildfires continue to consume vast swaths of Victoria, with particularly intense fires blazing in the district of East Gippsland, where Lake Tyers is located, the local “fireys” are on call and on high alert.
“Things are pretty desperate,” Sellings said. “We are in extreme conditions, our dams are empty, and it’s not a good situation.”
With only one access road for a community hemmed in by tinder-dry bush on one side and Lake Tyers on the other, the all-female brigade is “the lifeline if anything goes wrong,” she added.
Selling and her fellow brigade members are also guardians of a precious, painful, heritage.
“There’s ‘scatters’ (clusters of artefacts) all through this bush,” Sellings said, pointing to ancient eucalyptus trees whose silvery bark still showed traces of having been “stripped hundreds of years ago to make canoes, shields, or infant carriers”. She described sacred water holes and “bush pantries” of Indigenous foods and medicinal plants.
She also alluded to a more recent, and deeply traumatic, past.
“In 1863, after decades of conflict between white settlers and the Kurnai people, the Church of England commandeered the picturesque peninsula” upon which the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust now resides, establishing a reserve into which Indigenous people from all over Victoria were forcibly relocated, Australian Women’s Weekly writes. Sellings’ own great-grandfather was stolen away from his family and ancestral homeland as a young child, forced to live the rest of his life at the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Mission.
Following almost a century of “bitter conflict,” the state government surrendered the region’s lands back to its Indigenous inhabitants, in “the first successful Aboriginal land rights claim in Australian history”.
While acknowledging that Lake Tyers’ present remains troubled by “grog and unemployment” and ongoing discrimination, Sellings said she is resolutely focused on the future, crediting the village’s CFA with nurturing resilience and self-esteem in the women who today form the core team.
“It’s serious business, but we have a laugh, too, and we’ve built life-long friendships,” she said.
The article notes that “the co-captains have built a rock-solid and highly-regarded team who’ve been called out to fires, road accidents, and emergencies all over Victoria.” Sellings herself is in demand throughout the state, travelling widely and tutoring other “fireys” in how to recognize sites of cultural significance while out on patrol, as well as in traditional “blackfella” methods of land and fire management.
Declaring such “blackfella” ways to be “very effective,” she added, “we all need to work together to deal with the threat of fire….We need to share all our knowledge of managing the bush, white man’s ways and black man’s ways. We have a lot to learn from one another.”
Regarding the general absence of male representatives on the brigade, the 52-year old grandmother of three clarified that men are entirely welcome: “We’d love the fellas to join us and help out!” While those “fellas” do come along “every now and then,” however, “they don’t seem to last long,” she said.
“I don’t think they like taking orders from me,” she added.