• Aunty Charmaine Sellings of Lake Tyers CFA. (Madeline Hayman-Reber/NITV News)Source: Madeline Hayman-Reber/NITV News
At Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust in Victoria's north-east, women are taking the lead in protecting their community.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

The Point
11 Mar 2020 - 9:42 AM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2020 - 9:42 AM

On a picturesque hill overlooking a large cracked lake, lies the tiny community of Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust - home to the famous all-Aboriginal and female-led Country Fire Authority.

The community was spared, albeit just, from the devastating East Gippsland fires that ravaged Victoria’s north-eastern corner over the summer period.

Because of its location on a peninsula, and surrounded by dense bushland with only one road in or out, it’s an extremely high-risk place to be.

While emergency services urged the community to evacuate, many chose to stay on Country. Luckily, they were in the safe hands of the 'banana women'.

"Back in the year 2000, we were copping a lot of fires. Well I said to District 11 at that time and the place, if I got a crew up and running, would they train us? And they said yes," founder Aunty Charmaine Sellings told The Point.

"So I said, "Okay, be prepared tomorrow, I'll have that crew." And that's when we got the women's crew started. We became the banana women."

There have been several other members come and go since then, including several men who have joined after being inspired by the women's strength and resilience, and it's easy to see why.

"Reason I joined, me father and me grandfather were fire fighters as well. Go out on the summer crew and I thought, "Oh well. Yeah. No, I want to do that too"," Ms Mullett said.

"Just to show them that not only the men can, that us women can do it as well. Yeah, we've got the knowledge, the strength."

For Gunnai Kurnai man, Uncle Julien Edwards, or Uncle Tiny as he is affectionately known, there was more than just one reason.

"I've been in CFA for six years now, been seeing all the good jobs that women was doing and decided to join up and then," Mr Edwards said.

"Caring for Country is the big issue and it's good to see that more Aboriginal people to join up if they can... In the role of a firefighter, caring for Country's looking after your land. Make sure your family's all right, the Elders."

During the recent fires, although they were not called out, the Lake Tyers CFA played a vital role in their community by ensuring those who wanted or needed to evacuate did so safely, and also kept watch over those who chose to stay on Country.

"Aunty Charmaine and Uncle Tiny were doing the first night. Driving around and checking all the points, evacuating campers," Ms Mullet said.

"Then the second night me and Auntie Charmaine were sitting up in the laneway watching the fires, and went out the road a couple of times just to make sure no embers had come in and started any spot fires out the road."

Emotional toll

The physical strength is just half of the critical role, a lot of emotional strength is also required in the job.

Although there's extensive support available for CFA volunteers through the organisation, that doesn't stop the exhausting work taking a toll on the mental health of the firefighters.

"Sometimes it can be an emotional exhaustion. And it plays a lot, especially with fires like this, it plays a lot on your mental health... At the Trust itself, we've got our own counsellor and help from the health staff itself," Ms Sellings said.

"There has been bad days where I was mentally and physically exhausted that the health staff kept checking on me to see if I was all right."

Aunty Charmaine also said she was hurt by the lack of recognition her team receives each year by the general public, but especially during the most recent fire season.

"This year there was a lot of media ... 'Where was the Blackfullas, how come they're not out fighting fires?' So recognition that we are out there, we are out there fighting fires," she said.

Despite the challenges, Ms Sellings encourages women to consider joining the CFA for themselves, their families, their communities, and to inspire the next generation.

-For more, watch The Point on NITV (Ch34), Wednesday, 8.30pm.