Maggie Hagan lost almost everything when Mother Nature sent a bushfire roaring through much of the Blue Mountains in 2013. But the mum-of-three hasn’t let the tragedy tarnish her outlook.
“You’ve just got to pick yourself up and keep going,” she says. “You’ve got to do positive things that make you feel good.”
She continues: “My family loves nature. It’s why we live in the mountains. So, after the fire, my daughter and I decided that we would go camping. We spent time in the bush, we went swimming. It was very therapeutic.”
Taken by surprise
On the day the fire struck her home community of Winmalee, Maggie sensed something might happen. “I’d lived in the mountains for 26 years by that point,” she says, “and it was really strange weather. It was very windy, but the wind was swirling.”
Fires were already burning elsewhere in the mountains, but there was no indication they would reach Winmalee.
“At the time, just my daughter Nina was living with me,” Maggie says. “There was some smoke blowing onto our property, because there was already a fire further up the mountains. So, being a young person, Nina checked the Rural Fire Service website on her phone. But there was no fire alert for Winmalee.”
A few minutes later, Nina went to fetch something from her car. “Then she came running back down to the house,” says Maggie, “and she shouted, ‘Mum, I think we’d better go’. She’d seen fire in the front yard across the road.”
Maggie and Nina grabbed some clothing, a box of jewellery and Maggie’s handbag, then ran up to the car. “As we were leaving, we could see the flames behind the house across the road, two or three storeys high,” Maggie says. “It was very close.”
Maggie says the thought of staying and defending her home barely crossed her mind. “It was a very big, six-bedroom house,” she says. “It was three storeys at the back. And it was just me and my daughter.”
She adds: “It was just much too much for us. We weren’t prepared. You have to be prepared – to have the right hoses and all that.”
Instead, Maggie and Nina decided to drive to nearby Faulconbridge, where one of Nina’s friends had a house. Maggie says: “As we turned to go onto Hawkesbury Road, I looked over to my right, which is where my house was, and there was just this big grey cloud of smoke, and I thought, ‘That’s my house going up’.” Sadly, the entire structure was destroyed.
Salvos and supportive friends
In the aftermath of the fire, Nina’s friend in Faulconbridge, Brett, proved to be an invaluable support. “We were so lucky that we had Brett,” says Maggie. “He has a lovely house and we ended up staying there for three months.”
Maggie and Nina had no possessions other than those they’d grabbed before fleeing Winmalee. As they began to rebuild their lives, they leant heavily on the Salvation Army. “The Salvos were wonderful,” Maggie says. “You could just go visit them and get clothing and sheets and all that kind of stuff. They organised counsellors for the community, too.”
Maggie says she felt numb for a while after the fire. But as the days progressed, she was able to resume normal activities. “Me and my family are spiritual,” she says. “We are grateful for what we have. We’re thankful that we’re alive and that we live in a nice place.”
She continues: “When it comes down to it, you don’t need all that stuff that you lose. A lot of people make themselves so unhappy. They think: ‘Oh, I lost all my photos. I lost my mother’s dress. I lost all my jewellery.’ And when it comes down to it, that doesn’t really matter. That’s just making people unhappy. You have to think positive, and you have to just move on.”
Maggie says she considers herself fortunate. “I didn’t have little kids to care for afterwards, and I didn’t lose pets,” she says. “That would be horrendous, to lose dogs and cats. I was pretty lucky in that way.”
Her message for other Australians who have been impacted by bushfires? “Just hold on. It definitely gets easier.”