Wyee Rural Fire Brigade

16th October 2019

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (20:18:23): I always enjoy catching up with firefighters in the Lake Macquarie area, particularly at significant events such as the recent official opening of the brigade's new station, where I had the privilege of representing the emergency services Minister. I know many of the men and women in the Wyee brigade very well. However, I only recently learned about a fascinating part of the brigade's history that deserves to be not only told again but also preserved in the parliamentary records forever.

The story began with a bit of a throwaway line, but eventually led to the women of Wyee featuring in a short film and media reports around the world. The Wyee Bushfire Brigade, as it was then known, was first formed in 1960, so it will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary next year. At the time most of the men worked at the nearby power stations at Munmorah and Vales Point or at Morisset Hospital. One day in 1967 the women discussed who would fight the fires while the men were at work. There was a reply of, "We'll put it out." That seemingly throwaway line got things moving. At that moment eight women formed the Wyee Ladies Brigade. The men did not take them too seriously until the ladies headed out to fight their first bushfire, which had broken out at the nearby Bethshan Mission.

In those days the Wyee phone exchange was a manual one so the postmistress was the first to get the call out about a fire. As most of the ladies lived near the post office, the postmistress would run outside and yell, "Fire!" The ladies turned up in whatever they were wearing at the time—dresses, shorts, sandals, gumboots and even stockings. They would drive the ex-Army AR160 truck to the fire. It would take two of them to pull start the pumps on the tanker. But they did it and held firm against the fire fronts until their husbands and sons arrived at the scene from work to assist. By this stage, the blokes realised the women were not only serious but also very capable. So they began including them in a number of training exercises.

Collectively, they invested time and money into the town's fire truck and later built a shed to house it. It was an extraordinary effort from an extraordinary community. The late Ron Channels, then brigade captain, was so proud of the women's efforts that he convincedThe Newcastle Herald to send a reporter down to Wyee to tell their story. That story attracted other media attention from as far away as Canberra and then beyond. It was believed the crew had become the first all-woman firefighting team in Australia and a short film was soon made about them. And here is the punchline: It was sensationally calledThe fire-eating Amazons of the Antipodes and was shown in almost every English-speaking country around the world.

I am hopeful of finding it in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I am very pleased to say that a number of those women are still around and are still involved with the Wyee brigade in some way. For the record, the original ladies crew comprised captain Gwen Deaves, Bette White, Gladys Bateup, Ivy Hawkins, Rita Farmer, Nancy Baker, Daphne Deaves and Pat Coulthart. Gwen Deaves, I might add, is married to Russell Deaves, who was a foundation member of the brigade. Both remain involved with the organisation, although not so much on the front line any more. Between them they have more than 110 years of service, which is absolutely extraordinary. I am proud to consider them friends. The camaraderie in this crew reflects the friendships and spirit that continues to thrive in the Wyee community.

I was privileged to represent Minister David Elliott at the recent opening of the new Wyee brigade station. The State provided more than $750,000 for the project, with the remaining $40,000 coming from the brigade's fundraisers, the support of Lake Macquarie City Council and local sponsors. It has been open and operational for some months, but only recently has been properly fitted out. Given the worsening drought conditions and what looks like a very severe fire season ahead, I acknowledge all of the other volunteer firefighters throughout my electorate. We are very fortunate to have Rural Fire Service [RFS] crews in the Lake Macquarie electorate at Killingworth, Awaba, Wakefield, Cooranbong, Martinsville, Mandalong, Morisset Peninsula, Dora Creek and Wyee Point. The Wyee Point brigade will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary next month. I am looking forward to celebrating that milestone with them. I thank all of our RFS volunteers for their commitment and extend to them the appreciation of the entire Lake Macquarie community.

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