Rising from the ashes
Growing Chelsea family hopes to rebuild after fire
John MacDonell and Jen Osborne went from living in a Chelsea home surrounded with things they love to next to nothing.
“All we have at this house is a mattress, a table, and that chair,” Osborne said, pointing to the wooden stool their two-year-old daughter, Juniper Osborne, decorated with children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig and Disney princess stickers that this reporter sat on while they sat on the stoop of the Chelsea home they now rent.
A fire on the afternoon of July 13 destroyed their home at 507 Hwy 105 where they hoped to raise Juniper and give birth to their next child — Osborne was one month pregnant at the time of the fire.
When asked what she misses most about her old home, Osborne, 24, replied, “The security of owning a home.”
When she left home for work in Ottawa on July 13, she said she had no idea it would be for the last time.
Juniper was sick the day before, so MacDonell, a 28-year-old landscaper and farmer by trade, stayed home with her. After a nap in the upstairs master bedroom, he was watching TV in bed when he saw and smelled smoke, so he went downstairs to investigate.
“The smoke was coming out of the wall in a corner, so I immediately ran upstairs to get [Juniper] and got out of the house,” MacDonell said.
Not knowing the severity of the blaze growing in his walls, he grabbed a garden hose and started spraying the corner of the home from the outside where he could see smoke and embers. But it was too late. The smoke grew thicker inside, and he said he knew the hose wouldn’t douse the flames. MacDonell passed Juniper into a trusted neighbour’s arms and ran into the house to save their cats.
They had five cats before the fire. One was a male that roamed around outside and wasn’t inside during the fire, but the female and her three newborn kittens were still inside.
“Even going in it was a risky move,” MacDonell said. “I couldn’t see much. I just took a big breath before. I ran out of breath and tried to breathe, but there was no oxygen in the room.”
He only had time to get two of the four-week-old kittens before running back outside. He couldn’t go back inside to find momma or the other kitten. He hoped she got the other out safely. The female escaped the fire on her own, but they recovered the last kitten’s body after the fire and buried it under a maple tree at MacDonell’s mother’s home in Larrimac.
Osborne, working away at an Ottawa periodontist, got a call from MacDonell.
“I was sitting at my desk and it took John a few seconds to spit it out. I said, ‘You sound weird, what’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘The house is on fire,’” she explained.
She leapt up from her desk and raced home.
Osborne could see and smell the thick black plume of smoke rising from her home all the way from the Hwy 5 exit at Old Chelsea Road.
“I knew the house was gone,” she said, she knew that before she even turned onto Old Chelsea Road.
Their home, which they bought in December 2019, was built around the 1880s. It was built in a style called “balloon framing” that uses less lumber but leaves empty pockets throughout the wall from the floor to ceiling. Those empty pockets can act like a chimney if fire ever catches inside the walls. To add to that fire-prone equation, the walls were insulated with wood chips.
The couple stood on their neighbour’s porch across the street and watched their home burn as fire crews worked to control the blaze and stop it from spreading to nearby homes.
“It was totally surreal. I was constantly crying for eight hours,” Osborne said.
They lost everything. The furniture and clothing they loved and bought from thrift stores, outdoor gear, tools, and furniture they inherited from Osborne’s grandmother, including a piano.
“She taught me how to play on that piano while growing up,” she said.
Osborne’s voice breaks while talking about her hopes to recoup the value of the home and items through insurance.
“I don’t know how much you can replace [heirlooms]. I hope we can file a claim,” she said.
Osborne and MacDonell are still navigating the insurance claim system, which is proving to be lengthy and arduous for the young family, as they try to restart from scratch.
The only things they recovered from the home were, ironically, not in fireproof containers. In a collapsed and melted plastic bin, they found their birth certificates and passports, and in a burned jewelry box Osborne found her grandmother’s heirloom jewelry.
It’s been over a month since the fire and still when people ask how they’re doing, they lie.
“When people ask, we’re like, ‘Good,’ but we’re not okay, especially because we’re expecting our second,” Osborne said.
Even little things can send her back to that awful day.
“When I smell burning pine, I instantly get thrown back to that moment,” Osborne said.
The family is moving from their current rental home, which is right down the old highway from their former home, to another place in Chelsea, which they hope will be more suitable for a growing family.
They said they hope to demolish their old home and rebuild there since they love the area.
Following news of the fire, an outpouring of support has come in from the community. Strangers in the community organized donations of clothes and furniture and even set up an online crowdfunding campaign.
“Thank you. We’re so grateful, and things would be so much more difficult without the help we received,” MacDonell said.
“It’s really brought to light how awesome Chelsea is. Not every neighbourhood is like this. My daughter’s lucky to grow up here,” Osborne said.
Since they have what they need currently and more things means more things to move, they ask that people who still want to assist them do so through the gofundme.com fundraiser.