Stories Forged By Fire

forged by fire festival in Lithgow

Nyssa Hart’s story

Story and photos by Tracie McMahon

The Forged by Fire Festival was not the ‘usual’ Bushfire recovery or resilience event. Instead of focusing on consequences of fire, the Lithgow City Council event focused on human relationships with fire. Tracie McMahon ran a storytelling booth at the event, asking what does ‘Forged by Fire’ mean to you? The answers were surprising, uplifting and sobering. (NB. This story contains images that some readers may find distressing.)


Key Points:

  • Fire is an integral part of human existence, but everyone’s experience is unique.
  • Storytelling is a tool which can be used to share knowledge as well as learn and better understand our own relationship with fire.
  • Community events such as Forged by Fire enable the sharing of knowledge and experiences, exposing people to new ideas and different perspectives.

When I was approached to participate, I was intrigued by the naming of the event and asked: “what do you mean by ‘Forged by Fire’?”

Verity Brookes, Lithgow City Council’s Community and Cultural Development Coordinator, explained, “We are looking at ways we master fire: like pottery, blacksmithing, cooking; and ways we live with and manage fire: such as Landcare, Rural Fire Services, and landscape adaptation. Fire is something that is part of our everyday lives, and we think it would be good to have an event with a broader focus.”

As we spoke, I realised that fire had become a bit of a ‘boogey man’ in my psyche. When I bushwalk and the wind picks up, I start checking the horizon for puffs of faraway smoke, fearful they will join me in my bush idyll. Perhaps it was time to reflect on what ‘forged by fire’ meant for me and to invite others to do the same. I suggested to Verity that we could have a story telling booth, where people could share their experiences.

At first, I had ideas of emulating Trent Dalton and sitting with a typewriter on a little desk. Perhaps this would be a bestseller, ‘Fire Stories’ instead of his ‘Love Stories’. But where would I find a functioning typewriter? I puzzled over what my novelty drawcard would be to ensure someone would visit the booth.

The day before the event, I attended Lithgow’s citizenship ceremony and listened as the Australia Day ambassador Bruno Efoti, founder of Tradies Insight, a mental health support service for tradies, told his story.

Bruno told a story of a head of Lifeline responding to his concerns that he had ‘not much’ to do all the things he wanted to do to help others. The mentor asked him to hold out his open hand and replied, “Seems to me you have everything you need.” Bruno went home, turned on his barbeque and opened his home. Soon a shed was required and over five thousand people had joined Bruno to chat. All that was needed was a space, and a willingness to listen.

So, I packed up the ‘stuff’ that feeds my own storytelling: pencils, paint, paper, books, a laptop and some example stories, and took it to the Foundations. Bruno’s mentor was right, the stories came thick and fast. We packed up by torchlight, as they switched the lights off to allow for the visual installation and music.

Following is an amalgam of the amazing stories shared at the Lithgow Area Local News story booth. Stories in word, voice, picture and anecdotes. Thank you to all who shared their stories and for agreeing to be part of this story.

What does ‘Forged by Fire’ mean to you?

Margaret Hart Forged by Fire

Margaret Hart, sharing years of experience as a Rural Fire Service and Rescue Service volunteer.

Margaret Hart

“I feel like no one listens to local knowledge because we’re old. We need to share our knowledge and experience and we need to listen, not sensationalise it. When I see it on TV these days, it looks like chaos. When there is confidence, clear direction and knowledge, we can all work together, as one.”

Cass Coleman and Mark Macauley

Councillor Cass Coleman and Mark Macauley shared their experiences and how the Black Summer fires have forged their story. 

The Kerr Family

The Kerr family were on the final leg of ‘the lap’ of Australia and would soon be returning to their home in the Northern Rivers. Lochlan declared this was his “favourite place” on the whole trip. They had been to the River Caves and Deep Pass and walking in the Grose Valley. 

I asked about their experience with fire. The family of four discussed the slow creeping cultural burning fires they had driven through in Cape York and how different they seemed to the roaring bushfires TV screens had shown during Black Summer.

Lochlan’s picture story showed the charcoal landscape left behind in an unmanaged landscape. He wrote: “I painted this because bushfires happen everywhere. We can reduce that by controlled back burning and being prepared.”

Ruben told a story of bees that rush away in a fire to avoid the crackling flames. He said, “when the fire is over, the bees return and help stick the tree together, so the bees and the trees are saved.”

kids at Forged by fire festival

Lochlan (L) and Ruben (R) Kerr share their stories of their travels and thinking about fire.

Zayden Palmer

When I asked Zayden Palmer what he thought fire could be used for he was quick to point out that his favourite things, steam trains, relied on fire.

forged by fire painting

Zayden Palmer, adding the billowing smoke to his steam train story

Steam trains are an integral part of Lithgow’s history. The construction of the Zig Zag deviation created access to the Western Coalfields, and opportunities for the founders of Lithgow’s industrial past, including the Portland Cement Works, which occupied the building in which we were now sitting.

Kay Shirt

South Bowenfels resident, Kay Shirt, pops by to offer a different perspective.

“For forty years we have sat around bonfires with friends, drunk our wine and solved the problems of the world, sharing stories and laughing long and hard. The latest version of the bonfire is a repurposed satellite dish. Some of our ‘stay until the sun comes up’ people are gone, but always remembered as those friends forged by fire.”

friends around a bonfire

Bonfires and friendships: the author’s own bonfire friendships in Little Hartley.

Ross Gurney

Ross Gurney, Director of Finance and Governance at Lithgow City Council, tells yet another story.

He writes: “My connection with the Lithgow community was very much forged by fire. I was the acting General Manager at the time of the 2019/20 Gospers Mountain Fire. In the days following, I organised a Mayoral tour of Clarence and Dargan and the damage was heartbreaking. We had community meetings, and both the Australian and Indonesian army joined our recovery team. Listening to the needs of the community and visiting affected community members in their homes is something I will never forget.”

The devastation in Dargan witnessed on the Mayoral Tour in December 2019 (Courtesy Ross Gurney).

As more children pop by, drawn to the colours, I am amazed by their response to the question of what do you think of fire? One asks for more green paint. She wants to paint the new trees.

girls at forged by fire festival

Young eyes see and tell a story of the landscape recovering.

child at the forged by fire festival in lithgow

Mackenzie James with her before and after story: from flames to flannel flowers.

The James Family

Mackenzie James draws a story of the pink flowers that emerged after the fires. I suspect pink may be a favourite colour.

As the rest of David and Tess James’ brood of five busy themselves telling stories with watercolours and pencils, we chat about the adult experience and what ‘forged by fire’ might mean for them.

David says: “Check these out – it’s a hobby I started during Covid in 2020 after the fires. It’s one of my best sellers.” He shows me a handcrafted shaving brush with a resin handle. Flames leap from the base in molten red and orange.  

Fire is a part of the everyday human experience, but that experience is not the same for everyone. For some, it comes with memories of trauma and loss, for others it is symbolic of change and creation. No one story is absolute. They are all our stories, worth telling, hearing and sharing.

Thanks to all those who dropped by the story booth to share their story and to help forge this story.


Take Action:

  • Reflect on your own experience with fire. It may surprise you.
  • Listen to another’s story. The Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative will be hosting In Time of Fire: a poetry performance by Harry Laing from the Southern Highlands. It will be followed by an opportunity to reflect on the experience of fire across the country. The event is free but bookings essential here
  • If you feel that you are experiencing discomfort or worry around fire, consider seeking professional advice: The team from Headspace Lithgow who were at the Forged by Fire event, offer support with these issues among others; Lifeline can also be contacted here

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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