An all-female fire gang operating out of Sawyers Valley, about 35 km from Perth. during World War 2 is one of the many stories captured in a book dedicated to women who worked or lived in Western Australia’s forests.
Forest historian Roger Underwood said Women of the Forest was a collection of 32 first-person stories, written by women foresters, rangers or fire lookouts and the wives or daughters of forestry men.
“One of the most dramatic is the account of the first all-woman fire gang that operated out of Sawyers Valley during the 1940s while the menfolk were away in the armed services,” Underwood said.
“The crew fought bushfires, conducted controlled burns and other forest work such as telephone and firebreak maintenance.”
The book also contains an interesting story from Betty Rhodes, wife and mother of an extended forestry family and a long-time resident at Mundaring Weir.
She describes her life in a forestry settlement, and the trials and worries of husbands and sons away fighting fires and also the good times with the strong camaraderie in small bush settlements.
Betty also had her own brush with fire, and was lucky to survive.
Roger Underwood said the stories revealed the courage of bush women.
Kalamunda’s Gloria Willmott was caught in Dwellingup the night the town burnt down in 1961 and the book pays tribute to her brave mother, who took charge and protected her family in time of crisis.
“Many women remember their youthful adventures working on fire lookouts, including the great tree lookouts of the karri country,” Underwood said.
“Others tell of the challenges faced by the first women forestry officers, breaking into a man’s world.”
[Roger Underwood, AM, is ecognised for decades of service to forestry and bushfire management in Western Australia. Book inquiries to email@example.com]
The work of women in Australian forests during World War 2 aligns with a similar contribution in Britain – the Women’s Timber Corps that worked in forestry replacing men who had left to join the armed forces.
Formed in 1942, the origins of the Women’s Timber Service go back to the First World War when the organisation was formed to help with the war effort. In 1940, to solve a labour shortage and an increased demand for timber, the Forestry Commission started recruiting women both as forestry workers but also to work in sawmills.
In 1942 responsibility passed from the Forestry Commission to the Home Timber Production Department of the Ministry of Supply and the 1200 women already working for the Forestry Commission or in forestry jobs as part of their service in the Women’s Land Army became part of the new corps.
A full set of kit consisted of: 2 green jerseys; 2 pairs of riding breeches; 2 overall coats; 2 pairs of dungarees; 6 pairs of woollen knee socks; 3 beige knit shirts; 1 pair boots;’ 1 pair of brown shoes; 1 pair of gumboots or boots with leggings; 1 green beret; 1 melton overcoat; 1 oilskin or mackintosh; 2 towels; a green armlet and metal badge; and a bakelite hat badge.
Many of the women rarely wore the full uniform and instead wore what was comfortable and/or practical to work in.
The corps was divided into nine geographic areas responsible for the work and welfare of the women in that area. Accommodation ranged from purpose-built hutted camps, through small hotels and hostels to private billets.
The Women’s Timber Corps had a maximum strength estimated between 6000 and 13,000 at its peak size in 1943 working throughout the UK. This compared with more than 51,000 men and 48,000 Italian and German prisoners of war working in forestry by 1945.
The corps was a mobile organisation so workers could be posted anywhere and moved frequently as work required. One of the major difficulties the women faced was in finding accommodation as in most cases they had to find their own shelter and many householders were reluctant to take the women in as they considered them dirty or held other prejudices against women workers.
One women recalled that she stayed at over 80 different billets in two years.