In 2000, Charmaine set up the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust Country Fire crew following a fire at the Lake Tyers community. Up until then, the nearest fire crew were about 45 minutes away.
‘I said why don’t we start our own crew? Work together to get the funding for our own CFA [Country Fire Authority] unit and also shed.
‘We had an all-women’s crew to start with. Then after about 2 or 3 years, the men started joining up.’
Today there are four in the crew with another two waiting to train. Like so many places around the world, the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic has been felt in this small and resilient community on the south coast of Victoria.
Not long before the pandemic swept the globe, the region, which is in the Gippsland area of Victoria, was impacted by the Black Summer bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020.
Nestled in coastal bushland and surrounded by a lake, there is only one road in and one road out.
As the fire storm approached, it became clear that the community were in danger. With limited resources they were left with little choice but to evacuate.
‘They didn’t have the resources to bring out CFA strike force or any emergency services so we had to evacuate. What made it worse was that our water source is run through electricity and once the electricity goes, there goes our water. So we had no choice but to evacuate.
‘We had people in Sale, people in Bairnsdale. I was in Lakes because of me being CFA, I was separated from the family so I didn’t know how they were.
‘We had the army in and other resources. It was pretty hectic at the time.
‘I had the unit at the hotel with me just in case we had to go and pick somebody up and go somewhere to fight a fire. I was constantly on standby 24/7 throughout the whole time.
‘To sit there and watch everyone else evacuate, especially my own family, and I had to stay behind, it had a big impact.’
The impact of that summer is still being felt today. While Charmaine admits that she has had a tough couple of years, she’s fighting hard to make sure the community is not left vulnerable again.
‘We’re working on a proper evacuation plan. There are some people out here who don’t have vehicles so we need to look at trying to get funding for a little 12 seater or 14 seater to get people off the block… get some sleeping bags and little roll-out mattresses. We haven’t got generators.
‘I’d like to get more funding to build the shed bigger and get a second unit so one can stay here [the surveillance unit] and the other one can be used for strike teams.’
Charmaine is also keen to help others beyond her community.
‘Because I’ve become friends with a lot of people who have lost stuff, I’m trying to support them, places that have been really affected. That’s my goal now, trying to support them in any way I can. We’re all one. We try our hardest to support one another.
‘Within CFA itself, we’re all one big family.’
Charmaine is one of the many women working to keep communities safe.