Firewomen Bella and Grace Clark have been volunteering at the Appleby Firestation for 25 years. Photo: Jonty Dine.

Trailblazing firefighters recognised for long service

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They were the first women to join their station and, 25 years later, firewomen Grace and Bella Clarke have been recognised for their selfless service to the region.

From fires to floods and fatal accidents, the sisters-in-law have had countless Christmas dinners, birthdays and nights’ sleep interrupted with a callout.

The women have served as firefighters, secretary treasurer, peer support, canteen manager and, most recently, in risk reduction at the Appleby Fire Station.

After a quarter century as volunteers, Grace and Bella were celebrated in style last month.

The women were helicoptered into Greenacres Golf Course where colleagues formed a guard of honour as they entered to receive their gold stars in recognition of their long service.

“I can’t believe we have done it, it feels really good to get to this point,” says Bella.

She says they joined the brigade just one month apart as young mothers in the mid-1990s.

“We have faced a lot of personal challenges, mentally, physically, we have been pushed to the limit of our abilities at times,” Bell says. “When I have stopped and thought about it and what we have put ourselves through, I am proud.”

They say the longest and most difficult job the women faced was this year’s Tasman fires.

Grace was down south when the blaze first began while Bella was driving into Nelson and saw that this was a big one.

“I won’t say what I said to myself.”

From day one, until the last flame was extinguished, Bella worked 200 hours during the emergency in the incident management team.

“It was really hard, but it was equally rewarding, the organisations worked so well together.”

Grace arrived the next day and she joined the fight on the ground.

She was on the frontlines fighting the fire, in nine 14-hour shifts.

They say it is just the nature of the job.

“When you leave home, you don’t know when you’ll be back,” Grace says. “You might be away for one hour, you might be gone all night.”

Bella and Grace agree their work would not have been possible without the support of their husbands.

They say, though they never once feared for their lives during the 25 years, it was never that case for their children.

“The golden rule is all about personal safety, but our kids didn’t understand this,” Grace says. “They were always sure to say ‘I love you mum, be safe,’ when I’d leave.”

Their roles have evolved from mainly scrub fires but now go to motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies.

“We have had some unpleasant ones, but you process your way through those, ‘says Bella’.

A particularly painful memory occurred on New Year’s Eve two years ago in the form of a fatal car crash.

“I remember thinking ‘that person is not going home tonight’, and some mother is going to get the call that their child isn’t coming home,” says Grace.

Though not always easy, Grace and Bella say it is a great feeling knowing you have helped out your community.

“It’s been a privilege to be part of it.”

Though they may not have another 25 in them, as they hope to spend some more time with their grandchildren, they have a few more years left at least.

They hope to encourage more women to volunteer.

“Believe in yourself, I didn’t think I could do it, women think they are not strong enough but it’s not actually about whether you’re strong enough. Yes, you do have to do some physical things, like dragging a hose up a hill, but you just do it.”