Whangarei mum loses home in fire just over a year after losing her daughter

By Mikaela Collins -
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Vanessa's home burned down last week, only a year after her daughter's death.
Vanessa's home burned down last week, only a year after her daughter's death.

Vanessa Wihongi was still recovering from the loss of her 15-year-old daughter when her smoke-free home burned to the ground in a fire started by a discarded cigarette butt.

The Whangarei mum and her adult son Jae don't smoke as they are asthmatic and Wihongi hates cigarettes. Losing nearly everything in a blaze last Monday, which was started by a cigarette butt, has left her "fuming".

"I'd never wish it on anyone. I'm just happy we're alive," she said.

A neighbour said they had spotted someone on the Raumanga Heights Drive property with a clipboard that day but was not sure if they had been smoking. Wihongi also wonders if someone had flicked a cigarette butt that landed outside the home.

"It was traumatising for me because I just lost my daughter Shayla last year and all her belongings and our family portraits together [were in there], you can't replace those. As well as my grandmother's greenstones, trinkets, family heirlooms.

Wihongi, her 9-year-old daughter Briarne, and Jae were home when the fire started. She was in her room when she noticed the blaze.

"I saw an orangeness on the door and I tilted my head towards the windows and there were flames creeping past the window. I thought it was roaring but it was quiet, like a creeping ghost - it was like Casper leaping up the wall."

The wind blew the door shut and Wihongi had to kick the door down while yelling for her children to get out. She also saved her jack russell and the family cat managed to escape too.

It has been a rough year for Wihongi after losing Shayla, who had moved to Christchurch from Whangarei because of bullying, to suspected suicide.

Wihongi is to have an operation this morning and is now homeless, jumping from friends' houses while she looks for somewhere to live.

"Shayla was the academic one, she got a music scholarship, did the speech competition and was leader of the kapa haka group but I guess she got bullied," she said.

Vanessa's home burned down last week, only a year after her daughter's death.
Vanessa's home burned down last week, only a year after her daughter's death.

"I'm a mum and I had my daughter for 15 years. I'll always think of her every day but life goes on, it's short. I was just starting to heal and this happens. Now I'm really gutted to be frank."

Wihongi has received some help from Work and Income New Zealand for clothes and food and from Hora Hora Primary School, which Briarne attends.

Despite the challenges Wihongi still has a good sense of humour. She joked the fire service should change the "stop, drop and roll" motto to "jump, run and fly" as that is pretty much what she did.

She also joked the positive of surgery was that she didn't have to worry about a roof over her head.

When asked how she managed to keep upbeat in the circumstances she said: "My ex-band member said 'you've always been a good vocalist, you've always been bubbly even through the bad times. You'll get through this.' I have to. I still have kids alive I need to make sure they're okay."

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