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Wreck Bay volunteer fire brigade front and centre of Australia’s biggest blazes

Rachael Knowles -

With fires roaring across most of the eastern shoreline and down deep into Victoria, volunteer firefighters are battling blazes to protect their Country, community and families.

The Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay's own fire brigade have been working tirelessly against blazes along the south coast of NSW.

Beginning in 1987, the Wreck Bay crew was as an all-Aboriginal brigade, with many members of the local Yuin community joining. However, as time has passed, non-Indigenous community members have signed up.

The crew has battled some of the hardest fires that have flared up along Yuin Country.

Senior Deputy Captain, Darren Brown, said the crew's tanker has been out non-stop for two weeks.

"It's been full-on ... We were down in Conjola Lake when that went up. We've been to Milton, in Nowra ... We've recently been to the last fires that moved through Tomerong," Deputy Brown said.

The crew has engaged mainly with the Currowan Fire, which to date has burned 307,992 hectres of land. The crew has reportedly saved houses and properties across the coast.

With the threat of fire lingering over Wreck Bay, Deputy Brown said it would be incredibly hard to get mob to leave.

"The hardest thing if a fire ever came to the community, a lot of our mob ... wouldn't leave. You have to be respectful with how you deal with your own mob when something like this happens, everyone panics," he said.

"A lot of places in NSW, up and down the coast, they couldn't save houses and they had to deal with residents who wanted to save houses, or boats or cars. But the reality is it's always lives first then property."

Support from the Federal Government was announced on January 4, which called upon the Army Reserves to help handle the crisis.

For Wreck Bay, their largest lifeline has been the local community.

"I don't think the government support will come until after the fires, a lot of support has been through donations. People raising money and pledging support to local brigades.

"The situation we are in because we are in the territory [ACT], the Australian Government organisation that runs the Territory transport sector, they have to provide assistance. There is a bit of a legal minefield but all it is, is that we just have to go and sit down with them and tell them what we need and what we don't need.

"I think they will come on-board. At this stage, a lot of it is waiting until the fires are over and seeing what comes out of the government pledge. It's difficult, the fires are going to create more issues, there are a lot of stakeholders, residents and people with invested interest, from the brigades to State and Federal Government."

Both the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) and Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) have announced their support for bushfire affected communities.

IBA has announced a $2,000 bushfire crisis grant for home loan and business finance customers who have had firsthand impact, along with the temporary suspension of repayments and assistance in insurance claims.

ILSC has established an emergency response grant of up to $20,000, for Indigenous corporations whose properties have been directly affected and the availability of a grant to assist Indigenous land management groups and contractors assisting in recovery.

Deputy Brown hopes what can be taken from this fire season is an understanding for the need of Indigenous knowledge within land management practices, particularly cultural burning.

"It will be a political minefield; the blame game should not happen. We need to work together and starting to listen to and understand Aboriginal people and caring for Country. That's where it starts, they need to listen to our mob ... bring Indigenous knowledge into the conversation."

"The fire history of Australia, nothing has been learnt ... There is plenty of support for firefighters and brigades but when you're out there busting your guts and saving people's homes, and they appreciate it and I'm sure the government does too, but how to they put that appreciation into making things better for the next time round? Or how do they turn that into making our homes a safe place?"

Deputy Brown urges people to join the Rural Fire Service, to get involved in local community, and make a difference in these times of crisis.

"People should become volunteers, go and join your local RFS. Contribute to society, the more you learn in the field, the more you understand the political climate and the local and regional climate. And how people deal with things at a political level," he said.

"There are always two views as we know, some of the firies won't deal with politicians but it gives you an overview of something bigger ... Volunteering your time, don't fear it, give it a go, you meet so many good people and you're there for one thing and that is to save people and their properties."

To support the Wreck Bay Rural Fire Brigade directly please contact the crew through their Facebook page.

By Rachael Knowles

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