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A fiery road trip

  • Lake Tyers and Barmah Brigade members with the local Aboriginal community
  • Left to right: Rhonda Thorpe, Charmaine Sellings and VMO, Phil Hawkey

Lake Tyers brigade members and the Volunteer Support Program take a road trip to Barmah!

Charmaine Sellings and Rhonda Thorpe are used to getting out in tough conditions to do CFA business. As founders of the Lake Tyers Satellite Fire Brigade, the two Gunai/Kurnai women formed the first all-Koori brigade in Victoria after a serious fire on the Lake Tyers Trust about 10 years ago. With CFA’s help, the girls have been protecting their community and helping other communities ever since.

"We’re keen to spread the word about Koori involvement in the CFA" said Charmaine. "We want our community to know about what we do and importantly, we want to share key cultural messages with the fellas in CFA" she said.

The two women travelled from the cool coast of Lake Tyers in far-east Gippsland to the sleepy town of Barmah on the Murray River to visit the local fire brigade. The visit gave Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members a chance to catch up and share ideas. As one of the Volunteer Support Program Project Coordinators, I was fortunate to tag along.

Following a delicious BBQ prepared by the Barmah volunteers in honour of their special guests, informal discussions generated valuable advice to help in the development of CFA’s Koori Inclusion Action Plan.

The Barmah Brigade has many Aboriginal members, particularly in their junior brigade. Both Brigade Captain Christina Jackson and local Aboriginal community member Jenny Ockwell feel that by getting involved in the CFA, kids develop a range of life-long skills which are valuable to both communities.

"There’s a lot we can learn from each other" said local Yorta-Yorta community representative Leon Atkinson. "Our mob can share information about caring for country and the CFA can help our mob keep our communities safer" he said.

Solid, working relationships like this are a great example for other brigades wanting to engage with Aboriginal people. This is community engagement at its best; just people getting together to seek solutions to common problems. As the sunset on beautiful Barmah, everyone agreed to stay in touch and work together to strengthen ties between the CFA and other Aboriginal communities around the state.

But the road trip didn’t stop at Barmah. We also attended a Wodonga based forum about how Aboriginal communities used fire to manage and shape the Australian landscape over thousands of years. Coordinated by local land care groups in and a range of other partners, presenters discussed how Aboriginal knowledge can be applied to current management practices. Unexpectedly, at least 10% of attendees were CFA members from around the state.

Hume Region Vegetation Management Officer, Phil Hawkey found the forum of particular value. "We’re all aware of how our environment is changing and we’re eager to learn how we can both respect Aboriginal traditions and work with local communities towards more effective hazard reduction practices" he said.

One final leg of the road trip took us to District 12 Headquarters in Seymour and then on to HQ where we caught up with Deputy Chief Officer Steve Warrington and Volunteer Sustainability Project Manager, Ali Martin This quick visit enabled the girls to put forward their views, particularly about sacred site management.

"This road trip has been deadly" said Charmaine. "It’s wonderful to know that the CFA is embarking on a learning journey and I look forward to helping other CFA volunteers understand more about Aboriginal culture and heritage. This is the way forward" she said.

If brigades would like further information or assistance in connecting with their local Koori community, contact Debra Salvagno from the Volunteer Support Program on 0409 928 791 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last Updated: 02 December 2013