WA Māori whānau reunited after being separated by bushfires

By Bronson Perich

A Māori school teacher in Perth has been reunited with his whānau after bushfires separated him from his wife and children.

Fighting back tears, Joseph Te Maihengia White, father of two, spoke with Te Ao about the harrowing ordeal, which started while he was teaching his class.

“I got a text saying that they were going to close all the roads, and that means I wouldn’t be able to get home.

“Home is my wife, my two children, my in-laws and my wife’s grandfather," White says.

After requesting leave from school to rescue his family, White took to the road hoping to beat the fire service blockades that were being set up.

“As I was racing, literally I was going as fast as I can to beat the traffic, I just had visions of losing my family. I didn’t know if I was going to see my family.

“I love my wife, I love my children and I honestly thought I might lose them.”

Before leaving school, White called his wife Pipi, pleading with her to evacuate. By the time she was able to gather the whānau, flames and smoke were quickly approaching their home.

“I said 'Hun you really need to get out of there' and that’s when she’s started panicking because she was saying there was thick smoke. She couldn’t see anything, it was getting quite dangerous.

“I’ll be honest, I was in tears. I was pleading with my wife, 'please get out of there hun.'” 

Pipi White was able to evacuate the whānau safely and head north out of harm's way. The couple were still separated but remained in constant communication.

“We were constantly texting each other, calling each other, checking out the websites, figuring out what was going on," White says.

He then advised his wife to head south as soon as possible to avoid further blockades that the fire service were setting up.

Piki Thomas from NZ Fire Services says, "To my knowledge, the situation is not improving in the majority of Australia. So I encourage people to adhere to the instructions and laws of the country.

"In the new year, we will send what I believe is our seventh firefighting team to the eastern parts of Australia to render assistance," he says.

After being separated for a day, White and his family were finally reunited. They stayed with whānau and friends while infrastructure damaged by the fires was being restored. They were given the all-clear to return home a week later.

White says he spoke to Te Ao because he wanted to express his gratitude to the fire service.

“I’m just grateful for my opportunity to show my love and aroha for the firefighters because they’ve done so much.”

Without them he says, “I wouldn’t have my family.”