The Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust CFA is the first of its kind in Australia, comprising of a highly-skilled team of mothers and grandmothers who are always ready to spring to action at a moment's notice.
Editor's note: We are re-sharing some of the best moments and most important stories of 2020. Although it was a difficult year for nearly all of us, there were also shining moments of light and signs of hope. This was one of them.
Like most of Australia, the Aboriginal community of Lake Tyers in eastern Victoria has felt the devastating effects of the relentless flames these past few months. In fact, the situation is considerably worse for this isolated peninsula as with just one access road in and out of the area and a history of suffering crippling droughts during the summer, the 200 residents who call the lakeside 5000-hectare land home are among the most vulnerable in Australia. Their safety and lives rely on the fearless all-Indigenous, all-female fire brigade led by Charmaine Sellings.
Lake Tyers Fire Brigade Firefighter, Charmaine Sellings is pictured with the brigade’s new Ultralight vehicle that adorns CFA commissioned artwork ‘Working Together’. Lake Tyers brigade is CFA’s only Indigenous brigade, led by a team of Gunaikurnai women. pic.twitter.com/pQIhsHeaoG— CFA Chief Officer (@CFAChiefOfficer) November 4, 2019
Charmaine recently spoke to Sue Smethurst from Now To Love about her work and how her crew has been tirelessly fighting to protect their families, community, and sacred land during Australia's most dangerous fire season on record. "Just one crack of lightning on a stormy day could be disastrous. Things are pretty desperate. We are in extreme conditions, our dams are empty and it's not a good situation. The crew will work around the clock. We hope for a quiet summer but we fear the worst," she said.
Charmaine's Country Fire Authority Brigade is the first of its kind in Australia, comprising of a highly-skilled team of mothers and grandmothers who are always ready to spring to action at a moment's notice. These women are the very backbone of the remote Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust—a self-governing Aboriginal community in the State's far east that is hemmed in by thick bush on one side and a vast lake system on the other. "We are the lifeline if anything goes wrong, so we have an important role to play, and I think people are generally very grateful for what we do. There was a sense of helplessness before we came along but we feel empowered that we can look after ourselves and our people whatever the situation. The community is proud of us and they value us," said the group's fearless leader.
I just got back from Lake Tyers community, where about 40 people are preparing for another bad day on Saturday. They’re running out of water and only have a slip-on tank for the ute. Charmaine Sellings, the fire captain, is worried but she says the community is holding together. pic.twitter.com/2uJKpTLtsn— Calla Wahlquist (@callapilla) January 1, 2020
The Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust CFA was born almost two decades ago when a series of deliberately lit fires threatened to burn down the culturally significant land. With one home completely destroyed in one of these fires and the nearest fire crew 45 minutes away, Charmaine and her friends Rhonda Thorpe and Marjorie Proctor decided to take matters into their own hands. The three women quickly gathered volunteers from the tiny township and a brigade of eight women was formed.
For the women of Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust CFA, their work is about much more than just protecting the community. "There's 'scatters' (clusters of artifacts) all through this bush," Charmaine revealed, pointing out an area near her home where 179 artifacts were discovered. "There's a lot of history here. We still have some troubles – grog and unemployment particularly – and discrimination," she added. While women have been actively involved in fire services in Australia for over a century, it is still rare to find all-women crews; much less an all-Indigenous one. Today the Lake Tyers fire crew has a core team of four women with a few others volunteering when they can.
.@NACCHOChair Meet the all-female Indigenous fire crew protecting the Lake Tyers community ( East Gippsland) family and sacred land . #AustralianBushfiresDisaster— Aboriginal Health in Aboriginal Hands ❤️💛🖤 (@NACCHOAustralia) January 7, 2020
A highly-skilled bunch of mothers and grandmothers @IndigenousX @marcialangton https://t.co/BVEYquuRRm pic.twitter.com/mi6Xpg5sIM
"When we first set up the brigade the men called us the Banana Women because of our bright yellow outfits. We had a giggle about it because they were a bit jealous of us, but the name stuck and that's what we call ourselves today," Charmaine revealed. Although they never imagined when they started out that they'd one day be piloting complex fire trucks, wielding chainsaws, clearing bush tracks, and battling some of the worst bushfires Victoria has seen Charmaine and Rhonda now have a rock-solid and highly regarded team that's called to help out during fires, road accidents, and emergencies all across Victoria.
"We fought the Black Saturday bushfires, fires in Wilsons Promontory and Omeo. We've attended so many call-outs I've lost count. Road accidents are always hard, terrible. You never get used to the things you see in those situations, but you do develop great resilience. The first time I picked up a chainsaw, I was terrified. I had to cut through trees that had fallen and clear tracks so we could get through. I hated it. Now I love it. I can grab the chainsaw and clear a scene or a track in no time at all," said Charmaine.