A group of trailblazing volunteers in the South West are inspiring women of all ages to join the Bushfire Brigades.
Bunbury Bushfire Brigade (BFB) Captain Terri Kowal, Gelorup BFB Captain Glenys Malatesta, Boyanup BFB First Lieutenant Neroli Smith and Dardanup Central BFB First Lieutenant Allison Bailey have formed a close-knit bond working during some of the most devastating fires in Western Australia.
From the 2016 Waroona and 2015 Esperance bushfires to the 2011 Margaret River and 2014 Perth Hills fires (Parkerville), over the past 20 years they have seen it all.
The women believe perceptions that firefighting is dangerous work only for men is slowly changing, bringing even more women into the brigades.
Glenys Malatesta, who became captain of Gelorup BFB in October 2016 said many women have great motivational and leadership skills that come to the fore when looking after a crew.
“It all comes down to team morale. And I think nurturing skills play a part, because you’re looking out for everyone’s welfare,” she said.
Since becoming captain Glenys has cultivated a strong working relationship with the Shire of Capel.
“Blokes might say that they’re stronger but I think women are great at communicating and working as a team,” she said.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), Manager of Strategic Volunteer and Youth Programs Jennifer Pidgeon said women bring new viewpoints and skills to firefighting which enables volunteers to better serve their community.
“Gender diversity creates a more flexible volunteering workforce better able to meet the demands of our evolving communities,” she said.
Veteran of 23 years, Bunbury BFB Captain Terri Kowal, said she has worked hard to achieve an inclusive and welcoming brigade in Bunbury. She tells a story of a recent recruit, a woman in her sixties with a fear of fire.
“She joined thinking she’d be making sandwiches and throwing sausages on the barbecue. After a while we encouraged her to come out to some burnoffs and she loved it. Now she’s fully trained and comes out with us to the fire ground,” she said.
“We still get people who come along who like to cause a few ripples in the brigade. But whether male or female, young or old, it doesn’t matter in my brigade, everyone gets treated the same.”
Dardanup Central BFB First Lieutenant Allison Bailey has seen firsthand how more women are coming through the ranks in the South West. One of them is her daughter Caitlin Bailey, 20, who went through the cadet program and is now a trained firefighter. Together, mother and daughter have fought the 2016 Waroona bushfire and have also helped with mop up after the Esperance bushfire in 2015.
“It’s been great to see a few more females come on board and especially the younger generation,” Allison said.
Boyanup BFB First Lieutenant Neroli Smith said it is heartening to see more women becoming involved in traditionally male dominated areas.
“It’s not just bushfire brigades, women are in the police force and the military as well. The blokes that don’t like it are the minority,” she said.
Neroli decided to become a volunteer firefighter 25 years ago when her family home was destroyed. She is still dedicated to protecting her local community.
In recent months Neroli has been called out in Boyanup several times in the middle of the night to deal with fires. But she does not mind.
“Volunteering is still the best thing you could ever do. No paid job can ever give you the same feeling,” she said.