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Teagan Morris (left) and Renelle Verkes, are firefighters with Melbourne Water.

'Mum’s a firefighter': the women battling bushfires

Teagan Morris wields a chainsaw with a determined glare. The 22-year-old just got her bulldozer ticket and has been fighting fires for four years.

There are concerns catastrophic fire conditions in NSW could hit Victoria over summer, and Ms Morris is ready for it.

"When I first started to now, it’s changed a lot. My age and the fact I was female was quite unusual," she said.

The number of female firefighters remains low in Victoria – in the MFB only 81 of about 2000 firefighters are women, while 5000 Country Fire Authority volunteers are women, compared to 30,000 men.

But Ms Morris is among an increasing number of women countering the "blokey" perception of firefighting.

Melbourne Water firefighters protect 156,000 hectares of water supply catchment and work alongside CFA and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

During summer, the Melbourne Water fire crews are on watch 24/7, monitoring fires sparked by lightning.

It’s a big job. About 60 per cent of Melbourne’s water storage capacity comes from Gippsland’s Thomson Dam, which was threatened by fire in February this year.

Teagan Morris (left) and Renelle Verkes, are firefighters with Melbourne Water.
Teagan Morris (left) and Renelle Verkes, are firefighters with Melbourne Water. Photo: Eddie Jim

Melbourne Water firefighting crew leader and operations officer Renelle Verkes was part of the battle to stop that blaze.

The 46-year-old mother-of-two joined the Hoddles Creek CFA at 14 and has battled the 2009 Black Saturday fires and countless others since.

“You could go to the football club or netball club, I went CFA,” she said.

Back then, women made tea and sandwiches for the male firefighters, or did administration.

“It wasn’t heard of; a female being a lieutenant or holding a position of authority in the brigade.”

Mrs Verkes worked her way through the ranks from a project firefighter and is an operations officer now.

"Don't think you can't do it, because you can," she said.

"I have worked very hard to get to where I am today, it’s not something that’s easy, it's something you have to work for. You have to work hard – that doesn’t matter whether you're male or female."

Melbourne Water’s team leader of water civil maintenance James Tite, who is based out of Healesville, has noticed “a big shift”. This season there are 22 women and 82 men working in its fire crews.

“It’s really good too, from a diversity point of view as well. It brings different skills and thinking,” he said.

Ms Morris said advertising roles in a more inclusive manner (including images of women) helped with the push.

“The major thing they are doing is educating people that females can learn how to do these roles, and there is room for them as well. It’s not just a male industry,” she said.

That's a lesson MFB Commander Donna Wheatley learnt about 16 years ago when she was working in administration at the fire brigade.

Someone told her she'd make a great firefighter.

“At that point I didn’t even realise that there were any women who were firefighters,” she said.

She's since spent 15 years with crews on trucks and became one of the first of two MFB women to graduate to the rank of commander last year.

"Although it’s a cliche, you can’t be what you can’t see. And it’s great to see more women considering firefighting as a career for them," Ms Wheatley said.

Chloe Collins, 33, a project firefighter with DELWP, just returned from a deployment fighting fires at Buchan, Buchan South and Ensay.

The Wantirna South woman swapped being a laboratory analyst and studying a bachelor of science to start a career in firefighting in November 2018.

"It looks like we’ve been off to an early start too. We’ve had a few fires out in Gippsland already,” she said.

“We’ve gone into rotation this early in the season.”

Along with deployments, Ms Collins is also juggling motherhood.

“The challenge is definitely very real with three young kids,” she said.

“They are very proud, actually – 'Mum’s a firefighter' – so they are pretty stoked about that, they do like to boast a lot.”

Beth Roberts, Forest Fire Management Victoria Gippsland deputy chief officer, also faces the challenges of raising a young family and pursuing a career she is passionate about.

"It’s a desire to keep showing my young girls that being a woman in a leadership roles is really empowering,” she said.

The 41-year-old from Maffra said change was happening, but there was more to be done.

“I have seen women progress from traditional auxiliary roles into really high level operational roles whether that’s as a sector commander on the field right through to my role as chief,” she said.

In Forest Fire Management Victoria, about 20 per cent of frontline firefighting roles are women: 140 to 519 men.

At Myrtleford CFA station, with dwindling volunteer numbers, captain Gloria Pizzolitto says it’s more important now than ever that people apply, regardless of their gender.

“The ladies have realised it’s not just a man’s domain anymore,” she said.

The 30-year-old became a volunteer 12 years ago after a push from her brother.

“I was quite happy to be part of the crew, looking out for the community in times of need,” she said.

Reproduced from The Age, by Nicole Precel.


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