Fernand Baril said he’s lucky to be alive after his house exploded at the moment he frantically tried to get in the front door and try to stop the fire inside.
Baril, 77, and his wife Madeleine Dubuc were shovelling snow outside their Edelweiss home at Chemin du P’tit Canada Jan. 13 when they noticed flames and black smoke billowing from their chimney at around 2:30 p.m. Baril said he sent his wife to call for help from nearby neighbours, while he tried to get into the house to see how bad the situation was.
But as he approached the front door, an explosion knocked the elderly man to the ground.
“As I reached the second or third stair, there was an explosion and the glass shattered, and I was knocked on my back away from the house,” Baril told the Low Down, still shaken from the incident. “I got burns on my face and my eyes, and my winter coat and hat had little burns, like cigarette burns.” He was later taken to emergency to be treated for minor burns on his face and hands, as well as smoke inhalation.
Baril said firefighters told him that they believe the fire started in the oil furnace and spread quickly to the electrical panel and through the walls of the house.
“If I would have entered the house, which I didn’t, they said that I would probably be deceased right now,” added Baril. “I’m alive today, and that’s all that matters.”
It was only a matter of minutes before the whole house was engulfed in flames, and by the time fire crews arrived, the house was beyond saving. Fire crews from La Pêche and Val-des-Monts were able to contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to nearby homes — some just metres away in the wooded residential area. Baril and Dubuc said they had no choice but to watch flames destroy their house – the place they called home for more than 43 years – and everything in it. Family heirlooms, travel souvenirs, clothing and every family photograph ever taken.
As the couple watched everything they own burn to the ground, neighbours embraced them, police made sure they were safe and comfortable, and the firefighters battled the raging fire.
The couple had nothing but praise for first responders on the scene, who they said did more than just put out the burning building. “We want to thank – more than thank – all the firefighters, all of the police officers that took care of us, that calmed us down,” said 71-year-old Dubuc. “They made sure that the fire stayed on our property and did not attack the property of our neighbours, so we are really grateful for that.”
The Low Down returned to the burned-out site with Baril and Dubuc a week after the fire. It was an emotional moment as the two elderly residents walked amongst the rubble, the smell of smoke and burned materials still in the air.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” said an emotional Dubuc, looking at the charred remains of everything she owned. “We have nothing left. But it’s just material stuff. The memories we have up here,” she said, tapping her head.
The couple did not have insurance on the home they owned and are now left to find a new place to live and replace everything they own. Despite losing everything, the two appeared stoic, focused and determined to get back on their feet. Dubuc said the community response has been “overwhelming” at times, but she and Baril are moved by the amount of help being offered by complete strangers. The couple have grown children from separate marriages, but none of the children ever lived in the Edelweiss home.
Community rallies to help
Chantal Leclair, administrative assistant for La Pêche, has been coordinating donation efforts to support the couple in paying their bills, purchasing necessities and looking for a permanent housing solution. She has connected the couple with social organizations, local second-hand stores and set up a bank account at the National Bank in Wakefield for donors who want to help. And in true Hills fashion, the community response to the tragedy has been immediate and generous.
Second-hand stores Rupert Treasures and Nearly New Shop in Chelsea have agreed to open their doors on non-shopping days so that Dubuc and Baril can have the places to themselves when they shop for free. A resident in Low started a GoFundMe page, which has already raised close to $2,000. Nikosi owner Wapokunie Riel-Lachapelle has also agreed to donate a portion of her Wakefield restaurant’s sales during a one-day donation drive on Jan. 29.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Leclair. “I don’t have the words for that in English.” Leclair started a Facebook page for people to support the couple, and within a few days, over 200 people had joined and were offering items, including furniture, clothing and food. Baril and Dubuc have requested that any food donations be redirected to local food banks.
Seniors organization La Table des Ainés des Collines has also put a social worker in touch with Dubuc and Baril and is helping them stay on top of administrative issues, like getting health cards, IDs and medications ordered. The regional organization that helps to improve the quality of life for senior citizens will also help the couple with rent for the first few months once they find a new home. Dubuc and Baril are currently staying in a family apartment as a temporary solution.
“We thought we would be all alone in this,” said an emotional Dubuc. “We want to thank everyone that came forward offering help in any way or shape.”
The couple cautioned all homeowners never to attempt to enter a burning building and said no matter how old your home is, get insurance “because now we have nothing.” For a list of needed supplies, visit the Facebook group, “Fire chemin p’tit Canada, Edelweiss.” Leclair said there will be a donation drop-off day Jan. 29 at the Black Sheep Inn from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those who wish to make a financial donation can do so in person at the National Banque in Wakefield under the account P’tit Canada Fond D’aide. E-transfers can also be sent to donationptitcanada@gmail. com.