Houseboat Fire: What Happened, In Her Own Words

Take us back to that night. When did you first realize your houseboat was in trouble?

I was asleep at 5 a.m. I think I may have heard a sound, then I woke up to the sound of PFFFTTT. It sounded like a jet engine, and I felt this kind of glow. I’m sleeping in my loft, and I look out and I see this flame going in front of my house, like a BBQ flame: it was definitely gassy, but it was massive and going directly north.

I’m groggy, but I’m like Holy Shit! I’m in just my underwear running down the stairs, and I was like ‘I got to put a top on! Someone will see me!’ So I put my hoodie on and I run outside, and there’s this flame going up the side.

I thought, ‘I got this, I got this,’ though in my head I’m running through a million things. So I run inside and I get a fire extinguisher. I’m holding it in my hands, and I know you pull a pin – I know these things! – but I couldn’t see the pin, I couldn’t figure out how to operate it. I don’t know why, it’s just like I couldn’t freakin’ use it.

So I go back outside, and it’s still going up the side – the edge of my house is eight feet [high] and the flame is starting to shoot up above. I ran in and was like ‘valuables, valuables,’ but I couldn’t think of anything. So I grabbed my laptop from beside my bed, and I ran outside and put it in my boat. I turned, and suddenly the flame was licking the solar panel on the face of the house, so it was clearly moving to the right towards my door.

I was like ‘I need help’ – somehow I thought I could just call someone to get this front fire out. Then I turned and I could see Matthew [Grogono’s] daughters. They were on the island, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and probably less clothed than I was. They’re just screaming, ‘Get over here, don’t go back.’

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It was pretty cinematic at this point: I’m running through Jolliffe Island in my underwear and hoodie and I’m just screaming. And the things running through my head: ‘I screwed up everything for my community, I lost my home, Jolliffe is going to light on fire and everyone is going to be on fire.’ I was just imagining the worst.

So then I’m screaming behind Gary [Vaillancourt’s] barge, ‘Wake up, anybody, everybody.’ I remember Jessie [Collins] coming across in her canoe, and Rory [Mcneil] coming out with his paddleboard. Then one of Matthew’s daughters was like ‘Don’t come over here, call 911,’ but nobody knows 911, so we’re like ‘What’s the phone number?’

So we have a houseboat fully on fire. What happened next?

I could hear Gary getting into a boat, and the next thing we know, Rory has jumped in with him, and Katie [O’Beirne] and I are in a canoe and going over there. By the time we get there, there are cops on JY’s deck [two boats down], and they’re screaming at Gary to get back. Gary has this pump running and Rory’s holding it, and they’re getting closer and closer.

The firefighters were using a very small domestic pump that’s like 100 bucks. Gary’s was slightly bigger, and he clearly was prepared; he had a battery to operate it, he was making it work, he knew exactly what he was doing.

I found out later, because we didn’t know where [the firefighters] were, they forgot to prime their pump. They couldn’t get it to work, so at that point Rory and Gary had basically subdued the fire. By the time the firefighters got there, they went to shore and made sure it didn’t spread onto Jolliffe, though they poured some water on it just to make sure it stopped smoking. They went and got some buckets, and we started cleaning up and pouring water on everything.

What was the clean-up like that morning?

When they had taken control of the fire, we went back and the two neighbours that live in Gary’s cooked us breakfast. Then I was like, ‘Okay, into action, let’s clean this shit up.’

Wade [Carpenter] shows up and Wade and Gary are like, ‘Well, why don’t we just tug this thing across [to Government Dock]? It will be easier than cutting it up and taking it across. Erika [Nyyssonen] and Jay [Bulckaert] were in one motorboat and Wade was in his boat, and we just slowly tugged it across. As we’re doing that, Dan Korver shows up, and he got a car key made in like 20 minutes for my truck.

As we get it to shore, everyone’s like ‘Who’s got trucks?’ People are texting. Karen Mitton was incredible, she was my PR person but also coordinator. She was getting people there with trucks. We had five trucks, and we were doing laps to the dump. There was about 30 people all day, and we just worked our asses off cleaning it up.

The support was incredible. Roger [Buckley], the fish guy, comes by and he’s got this huge amount of fish, so my two chef friends kick into action and they’re over at Erika’s on the Government Dock and they cook this huge feast. And I remember this one moment when Matthew Grogono showed up and he was like, ‘I was just thinking we needed some community-bonding event.’

It was really special. When I built my house, I had everyone in this community help me, everyone did something. So the people that helped me build my house helped me tear it down, and I think that’s really beautiful. It was about the act of both of those things that makes a community and not necessarily the building itself.

Was there anything salvageable?

My wood stove. Which is hilarious, because it’s the thing everyone used to make fun of me for, like ‘that wood stove won’t heat anything.’ I have shards of underwear, and my post office key – all the other keys dissolved. There’s some cleats, and Wade was really cute, he grabbed one and said ‘I’m taking this and I’ll put it on your next houseboat.’

What do you think caused the fire?

It was silent and eerie calm that night, so my theory for a long time was that I had a leaky propane tank and it was so leaky that the gas just sat on my deck, because it just goes to the bottom. But the tank had been there since January, so I just don’t know.

That was the first night there was mosquitoes, and I never do this but I had a citronella candle sitting there and I thought ‘I’m going to light it for my house guests tonight,’ and I just put it out on the deck. I feel really stupid for doing it, but people do it, and I just forgot about it.

Did you have any leaking propane problems before?

Not in the summer. In the winter I did. That’s why I turned off my heater. Because propane has dirt in it, eventually it will build up in the little inner tube in your heater. Gary had come over in January and cleaned it out and it was full of gunk, so I thought he fixed it. But one night I remember seeing a glow and flame coming out of my heater. So I turned it off. I never used it again.

The propane was on because I was using it for my oven, but there was no fire in the house or I would have smelled smoke. A lot of people say there’s no way the candle and the thing were connected, they were three feet from one another.  But I don’t know.  Maybe people will go judge me, but I had the heater turned off, and that’s what makes me think it has to be the citronella candle.

Tell us about the houseboat that was lost?

I did my thesis on the houseboats and I’m interested in informal architecture. I’m interested in what informal architecture has to provide our society. I wanted to improve my knowledge of building. Also, because there’s a lack of control in the community on the bay, it allows for exploration. Also that pioneer spirit – there’s a lot of beautiful community that reminds me of when I lived in West Africa, things that are lost when we have these formal controls.

The dignity of building your own home is what started this. So two years ago, I bought this wall tent off Wade, and there was this little tiny space. I removed the wall tent, added six feet on each side of the deck, then my parents came up and we built my house. It took about two weeks. Chris Pike, Byron [Fitzky], my mom and my dad and I all built it. It was just the shell, so that summer I cladded it, and my theory was, ‘I’ll slowly do more work on it as I get money.’

How much money did you put into the houseboat?

I would say, including all my tools and hardware and everything, and all the stupid things to putter around with, it might be close to $50,000.

And is any of it covered by insurance?

No. It’s just kind of a known fact [houseboats can’t get insurance], but I’m going to do more investigation. My grandmother is an insurance agent, so I feel I should have been more on top of this. I’m a bit humbled by that.

How do you think the community is going to respond in the longer term?

I think maybe a fire brigade might be in order. We might come up with a community plan for that. I think that what it proved is that Emergency – even though we don’t pay for them – weren’t prepared for emergency on water. The fact that Gary and Rory responded the way they did proves that we have the capability. We just need to get a bit tighter in how we do that. Our community is made up of engineers, planners, architects, builders, not to mention government workers, who contribute to this city but also can strategize our own safety plan.

Are you planning on rebuilding?

If I can get floats in the next week or two then we could probably build a house in two weeks, if we can get enough people together. I need to figure out the logistics of that, how much money I can pull together. I’m obviously not going to build it with rigid insulation again, I’m going to start thinking about my fire separations, I’m going to start thinking about my decks, I’m going to start thinking about everything in a different way. My future home will definitely use products that are not as flammable.

Following the fire, there was a significant amount of criticism of the houseboat community, largely around how the fire brigade showed up despite houseboaters not paying municipal taxes. How do you respond to this criticism?

Haters gonna hate. It’s this never-ending comment, and it’s the only comment they make: ‘They don’t pay taxes.’ And it’s just a funny thing, half my salary goes to federal taxes and a lot of those federal taxes come back to this territory. Maybe if the City wanted to negotiate these things, but these things haven’t been negotiated. There’s more people that live on the Ingraham Trail who don’t pay taxes – nobody talks about them, and some of those are million-dollar homes.

I just think we need to look at complexity and diversity of housing, and think of how all these things work. The reason I’m interested in informal communities and architecture is because it breeds and attracts people who are creative and who want to contribute to a community. You look at the Snow Castle, even just the hockey arena. You think of the way we are caretakers of the bay. It makes it a safe place to go. You feel safe skiing there in the wintertime, you feel safe doing those things because people are there. So we create a community and a really beautiful place – it definitely provides public space and a huge identity for this town.

There’s a benefit coming up. How does all the support you’ve been getting make you feel?

As an individual, I have a lot of issues around getting help from others, and I’m not good at it. I want to be independent. Sometimes I feel those voices of people who say, ‘You don’t pay taxes. You’re always mooching.’ And I can’t handle that. I work my ass off and I take care of myself.

But my father called me up and was talking about the idea of charity, and he’s like, ‘people just love you and want to help you. There’s your pride but maybe you just need to let people love you.’

It’s totally weird, I think my brain is just shutting it off. But it’s also beautiful. I have these moments of just breaking down in tears at the kindness of others.

Good things come out of these kind of circumstances, and I firmly believe there’s a reason this happened, and I want to rise above it and make a better house next time. This event allowed me to get to know people and see people in my life that I didn’t realize were so supportive. There’s a lot of times when I get frustrated living here, and I feel that a moment like this makes me grateful for all the incredible humans in this place. You can live in so many other places in this country and never interact with your neighbour. You can have absolutely no idea what they do for a living, even what their names are. But here, even though it can be sickly knowing everyone’s business, they got your back.


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