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James Bay house fire sparked by barbecue, tenants say

Everyone got out safely except one cat when a barbecue at the back of the Ontario Street house ignited the wood siding, then roof

A James Bay house was being boarded up and fenced off Monday after a large blaze caused by a barbecue ignited the 1908 home’s wood siding before breaking through the roof.

The three-storey house at 268 Ontario St. has three suites, but no one was injured in the blaze, though one person was taken to hospital for observation, and all pets except for one cat were rescued by firefighters.

Tenant Philippe Jolicoeur, a real estate agent and former wildfire firefighter, said he had put his Father’s Day steaks on a low temperature on the barbecue, which is located outside on the ground floor under a second-floor overhang, before running upstairs to boil potatoes.

When he heard a loud “pop,” he ran back to see the propane barbecue in flames and raced to grab the fire extinguisher. But by the time he returned, that whole corner of the back of the home was in flames.

“It was too late — it took seconds,” said Jolicoeur, who suspects the 10-year-old propane-fuelled barbecue had a leak.

Neighbours who reported hearing screaming likely heard Jolicoeur’s stepdaughter, 18-year-old Kayra Istrate, who said she and her mother, Francini Vargas, were banging on the doors of other tenants to ensure everyone got out safely.

“It was probably me they heard — I was screaming ‘get out of the house,’ ” said the Grade 12 student at École ­Victor-Brodeur in Esquimalt.

The music teacher who lives upstairs from her family didn’t answer her locked door “so the cats couldn’t get out,” the teen said. “I was freaking out.

“Ten minutes later, I saw her car drive up and I was like, ‘thank the Lord,’ because I was so scared she was in there.”

The attic tenant did end up losing one of her two cats and pet rats in the fire, as well as stringed instruments, according to the home’s owner.

Firefighters rescued her other cat, which was hiding in a closet, as well as Kayra’s cat Parker, which was under a bed. Her French bull dogs, Oreo and Pistache, got out of the smoke-filled home earlier.

Jolicoeur said when Parker was found, he swiped at the firefighter who rescued him. “He put up a fight, like a wild cat, he was just so happy,” said Jolicoeur, who said the cat stayed on oxygen overnight at a vet hospital.

Homeowner Brian Rados, who was at the scene Monday, said the house — assessed at $1.7 million — was gutted, moved and expanded about 30 years ago when he purchased it. The six-bedroom home was updated beyond the requirements of the building code, he said, but had a non-conforming suite in the attic.

Without the major work done to insulate and fireproof the home, he said, it likely would have gone up like a torch, as happens to many wood-construction houses of that era. Cedar lattice outside did go up like kindling, though, he said.

Rados briefly inspected the inside of the home Monday and said “that was scary going up there — it’s gone, there’s no way we’re salvaging this.” Rados, who lost his wife three years ago, said what was lost Monday was “just money.”

“No life got lost, except one cat,” he said. “We can move on from this.”

Looking up at her burnt-out room, just above the fire, Kayra became emotional noticing that while the roof had caved in, a corner of the room with a shelf and photos of her deceased grandparents was intact.

Battalion Chief Todd Harris said the call came in at 8:24 p.m. and four minutes later, Victoria firefighters with three fire engines, a ladder truck and battalion vehicle arrived to find “heavy smoke and fire.”

Neighbour Beverley Trute said she heard loud bangs and looked out her window to see flames from the roof.

“It sounded like it was a boom or like an explosion almost,” said Trute. “It was pop, pop pop.”

Video of the fire posted online shows smoke pouring out of the roof.

Trute, who lives at Michigan and Oswego streets, kitty corner to the home, was shocked to see firefighters enter the burning building.

“They were literally trying to go in that back door when there’s flames flying up on one side of that building, like really flying up, smoke everywhere, and we saw them trying to go inside the door,” she said.

“Initially I was thinking ‘what are you doing trying to go in there?’ ”

Jolicoeur and his family, now staying at a nearby hotel, are the only tenants who had rental insurance, according to the owner.

Mari Jagt, 28, a tenant in another one of the three suites, is grateful firefighters were able to retrieve medications and a cane.

“The emergency personnel were beyond phenomenal,” said Jagt, who is staying in a hotel until Wednesday. “I have no idea where we’re going after that.”

The battalion chief said there was extensive structural damage to the home. The insurance adjuster will be on the scene this week to determine, in part, whether the house is a write-off or can be rebuilt.

The home is now being boarded up and fenced off for investigation. None of the approximately nine tenants will be allowed to enter the home to salvage belongings. Vargas’s vehicle was destroyed.

Jolicoeur and his family and the rest of the tenants will also be looking for somewhere new to live.

Jolicoeur said he feels nothing but gratitude that his stepdaughter and wife are safe and their beloved pets were rescued.

“If something had happened to any of us or even the pets, that would have been a real tragedy. For right now it’s just material stuff that can be replaced,” he said.

One of the items that was recovered, however, was Kayra’s graduation dress. The $1,200 floor-length purple gown, wrapped in plastic, was removed from the charred bedroom by firefighters.

“When the firefighter went in I said: ‘Could you please save my grad dress, it’s the only thing I really need,’” she said. “I’m really glad I have my dress, but it does smell really burnt.”

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