Heather Peters says some furniture will have to be written off, as the toxic smoke makes it impossible to clean properly.

Rebuilding a life after a fateful fire

Doug and Heather Peters reflect on how a Christmas fire upended their lives

Christmas was always a special time for Doug and Heather Peters.

On the days leading up to the holiday, they’d decorated their Queen-Anne-style home extensively: lights inside and out, a tree, family mementos and holiday knick-knacks.

Every evening they’d listen to another chapter of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, read the original book, and watch part of the classic movie version.

Even their home itself, built in 2004, was a Christmas gift.

“We moved in 14 years ago, three days before Christmas,” recalled Heather Peters. “The contractor was late finishing the job, and that’s when we got in.”

Last Christmas brought a new memory, not so pleasant: hot embers from the fireplace’s ash bucket burst into flame in the garage; the fire spread, destroying the garage and pantry, and threatening the rest of the home.

The Peters fled the building, and their sprinkler system and the village fire department quickly doused the flames. But not before the damage was done.

“It was the water and smoke that did more damage than the flames,” says Doug. “There was an inch of water on the main floor, and a waterfall cascading down the stairs to the basement.”

Two months later, the Peters are living with the aftermath of the disaster. They’re living in a home generously donated by a snowbird friend, and dealing with insurance companies and restoration workers.

“They’ve been very good,” says Heather. “Our claims adjustor is right on top of what’s happening, the project manager has been very good too. Stutters [the restoration company] have been wonderful. We can’t complain about anything, they have been very good, been very accommodating, and doing a terrific job.”

The community has opened up to the couple, who’ve been active with the Anglican Church, historical society, and other groups in town since moving here.

“People are coming up to us in the grocery store, saying “I’m so sorry about what happened’,” says Heather. “People have been very supportive.”

The inside of the house, once a scene from Currier and Ives, more resembles a construction site. Dehumidifiers rumble in several rooms, many walls have been stripped to the studs. The heaviest damaged walls have been torn down completely.

Touring the damaged home, the Peters showed Arrow Lakes News the evidence of the always-random nature of fire damage. One part destroyed, another right next to it untouched.

“The fire ran up the outside walls, consumed the garage, consumed the pantry roof, and was progressing above that way,” says Doug, pointing at damaged spots. “That’s where the firemen poured water.

“Usually a fire spreads so fast they can’t save a house. But I believe it was because it was Christmas, and all the firefighters were home and able to respond quickly, is what saved our house.”

Now the house is not much more than an empty shell, with fire or water-damaged objects piled into corners, and tarps covering the burned-out area.

“All our belongings are spread out all over,” says Doug. “We have stuff in Kelowna being cleaned. We have a storage unit in town with all our clothes and books and things.”

While wooden furniture has been put into containers, anything with stuffing — sofas, cushions, mattresses- has to be thrown away.

If there is one small grace, it’s the things that can’t be replaced — family photos, documents, treasures — were untouched by either the fire or water.

“All our antique furniture, photos, all our keepsakes were saved and can be restored,” says Doug. “But there are some things it would cost more money to clean up than they’re worth. We’ll decide what we want to throw out and what we don’t.”

It’s taken two full months for work crews to tear down and clean the place, from top to bottom, and discover the full extent of the damage. The fire had crawled up along the interior roof, burning the wall behind an upstairs bath. That was only discovered during the cleanup. And toxic soot is everywhere- Doug opens a drawer, and says outlines of objects could be seen in ash, which worked its way into every nook and cranny.

But now the Peters are now waiting — understandably, with some impatience — for the next stage to begin. It’s taken some time to find three contractors locally willing to do the rebuilding of the house. They’re hopeful work can begin soon, but it will be many months before life begins to return to normal.

“They say we won’t know the difference when it’s done, but I think we will,” says Doug, who was meticulous with his upkeep on the house, keeping original paint cans to do touch-ups when doing maintenance.

“But the colours they should be able to match, they took samples,” he says. “Plus, we have a book, our paint diary, of all the colour combinations we used when we first decorated.”

“We just have to find it,” laughs Heather.

But the Peters aren’t sure what they’ll do in the meantime. Their snowbird friend is returning at the end of the month, and they’ll be on the street again, looking for a new home. They’re hoping word will get out and they can find a place to stay for a few months at a time.

“Having a house is important to us,”says Doug.

The Peters’ home was the culmination of a lifetime of loving classic architecture, built from scratch to their own specs, in a town they love to be in. While many retirees might take the opportunity to repair the house, sell, and downsize, the Peters dismiss the idea outright.

“We’re not ready to move, we will when her legs don’t go up the stairs,” he says, pointing to Heather. “I still do all the maintenance and yard work around the house.”

“As long as he’s up to it, and can do the work, I want to stay here,” says Heather. “We’re not going anywhere.”

 

The Peters are looking for a new place to stay in April, a house-sit until their home is ready for occupancy.

“They say we won’t know the difference when it’s done, but I think we will,” says Doug Peters.

“As long as he’s up to it, and can do the work, I want to stay here,” says Heather Peters. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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