They'll bury me in my yellows
The Australian Women's Weekly|January 2020
In a tinder-dry continent during one of the most dangerous fire seasons on record, Sue Smethurst meets the all-women, all-Indigenous fire crew that’s protecting family, community and sacred land.
Charmaine Sellings keeps a close eye on inky clouds rolling around the horizon. “Just one crack of lightning on a stormy day could be disastrous,” she says, looking across brittle paddocks sweeping up to the edge of the parched forest surrounding her community’s 5000-hectare home.

Like so many parts of Australia, picturesque Lake Tyers in eastern Victoria has suffered crippling drought in recent years, and as a consequence there’ll be no summer break for Charmaine or the Country Fire Authority brigade she leads. Instead, they’ll be on-call, keeping watch over this tinder-box patch of sacred land.

“Things are pretty desperate,” Charmaine says. “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.”

Charmaine’s crew is Australia’s first all-Indigenous, all-female fire brigade, a highly skilled bunch of mothers and grandmothers who can pull a strike-team together faster than wildfire. These trailblazing women are the backbone of the remote Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust, a self-governing Aboriginal community in the state’s far east.

“It’s not that men aren’t welcome – in fact, we’d love the fellas to join us and help out!” Charmaine quips.

“Every now and then a fella comes along but they don’t seem to last too long. I don’t think they like taking orders from me,” laughs the vivacious 52-year-old grandmother of three.

With only one access road in and out of the isolated peninsula, which is hemmed in by thick bush on one side and a vast lake system on the other, the station’s 200 residents, who are among the most vulnerable in Australia, rely on these fearless fireys to keep them safe.

“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,” Charmaine says. “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.”

The Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust CFA, as it is officially known, was born almost two decades ago after a spate of deliberately lit fires threatened the tiny township. During one blaze, a home was burned to the ground. Knowing the nearest fire crew was a potentially disastrous 45-minute-drive away, Charmaine and her friends, Rhonda Thorpe and Marjorie Proctor, took matters into their own hands, asking the CFA to train them up to protect the culturally significant land.

They walked the streets of the settlement knocking on doors, signing up volunteers. Eight women made up the inaugural brigade. For these unique fireys, the brigade is about much more than just protecting the community – it is also about protecting their story.

“There are ‘scatters’ [clusters of artefacts] all through this bush,” says Charmaine, as she shows us an area just a short walk from her home where 179 artefacts were found.

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