Natasha Candelora left her house in Old Remo around 5:10 p.m. on Oct. 7 to take her two children into town for Taekwondo practice. Within an hour, their home burned to the ground, leaving behind only a smoldering pile of rubble.
The fire was devastating for the family. Not only did it completely destroy their home and all their possessions (including irreplaceable photographs), it also jeopardized Natasha’s eligibility to continue as a foster parent to the two children, whom she has cared for the last seven years and loves as her own.
She said that day leading up to the fire was a bit hectic but relatively normal. She spent the day on a cleaning frenzy and prepped dinner before rounding the kids up for the trip into town.
It was Natasha’s parents, Bob and Barb Wilson, and brother Tony Candelora who saw smoke rising from Natasha’s house. They live right next door in another house on the same property — a small farm where the family keeps a few horses and domestic pets.
Bob and Tony rushed outside when they saw the smoke. Tony didn’t even put on shoes. Bob said they went inside the burning house to get the pets out.
“The whole roof of the house, inside the house, was just swirling with smoke,” Bob said. “There was no flames or nothing, it was just smoke. Black smoke, just like curls on a woman’s hair … It was weird. It really was.”
Tony got the dog, Redford, a rust-coloured doberman, out safely. The cats took care of themselves. Bob and Tony got the rabbits out.
“Then we turned around and looked back and the whole roof just come down,” Bob said, noting that when he and Tony opened the door to enter, air flowed up to the fire smoldering in the roof of the home. “Probably within less than 45 seconds the whole thing just come crashing down.”
Barb dialed 9-1-1, momentarily forgetting that their property is outside the Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department’s coverage zone. The operator reiterated that fact and dispatched RCMP to assist.
Rick Boehm, chief of the Thornhill fire department, told The Terrace Standard that it’s always tough for the fire department when they hear about a fire just outside their protection zone. The zone boundary is a federally-mandated 8-kilometre radius around the fire hall. Firefighters are only allowed to leave their protection boundary when someone’s life is in danger, such as a person trapped in a burning building, which wasn’t the case with this fire.
Barb said it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. From start to finish, the fire only lasted about 20 minutes, and she figures the fire department wouldn’t have been able to react in time.
Boehm said that it does indeed take some time to get fire engines out to Old Remo.
“The Old Remo location is sort of compound affected by the significant climb up that hill,” he said. “[Fire engines] can only go so quick on that little road and it is quite a slug to get those heavy, heavy trucks up that hill.”
Meanwhile, the kids were at Taekwando and Natasha was relaxing at Cafenara with her boyfriend, Terry Healy, who had just arrived in Terrace that evening after a day of work in Prince Rupert. That’s when Natasha’s cell phone rang.
“My mom’s yelling at me ‘Your house is on fire’ and I’m like ‘what?’” Natasha said. “You’re in shock when you hear that.”
She rushed to gather the children from Taekwando while Terry jumped in his truck and drove like mad out to Old Remo. Even at breakneck speed, the roughly 14-kilometre drive from Terrace to the farm still leaves enough time for one’s mind to churn.
“I was wondering how far along the fire was. Can we save anything?” Terry said. “I didn’t think that the house was totally gone. I didn’t assume it would be that bad [but] as soon as I started down Queensway, and you look back this way, all you could see is a cloud of black smoke.”
Natasha was just minutes behind with the children.
“It looked like the whole forest was on fire,” she said.
When she arrived, she noticed a collection of onlookers.
“We had a lineup of people sitting in their cars, and I have to say, for me one of the most awful feelings is people sitting in their vehicle with their windows rolled up watching your house burn down,” Natasha said, tears welling in her eyes as she recalled the memory.
But there were also friendly neighbours who arrived to help. A pair of them comforted Natasha.
“They’re holding me and I’m getting sick beside the car,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, the grief, the panic that goes through your mind.”
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Nearly four weeks after the fire, the smell of smoke still hangs in the air at the family farm. It’s Oct. 30 and the rubble has yet to be cleared. Redford, the doberman, has bandages on his front paws because he cut them mucking about in the debris.
The debris won’t be cleared until Natasha’s insurance processes the claim, and snow might fall before that, meaning cleanup may not happen until next year. Candelora says dealing with the insurance company has been straightforward (the company already supplied emergency funding for a hotel stay and items such as clothes) but the process inherently takes time. She is also waiting for the insurance company to complete an investigation of the fire and determine the cause — something the fire department would do, if Natasha’s home were within the fire protection district.
The family sits in the living room of Bob and Barb’s home. Natasha is still under a lot of stress trying to sort out new living arrangements and replace essential items, and the whole family is worn out from the ordeal. But they haven’t lost their senses of humour. They all laugh as Barb describes how Natasha’s cats moved themselves, with an air of entitlement, into Bob and Barb’s home.
The children, who are both around 12 years old, are coping fairly well, all things considered. The brother and sister are not identified in this story because provincial policy prevents foster children from being identified in the media. Initially, the girl was scared to go back to school because she was afraid of what all the other kids would say, but when she did go back she found her peers to be caring and supportive. The boy has expressed some anger following the fire.
Bob and Natasha also say they are frustrated, particularly with B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, which oversees the foster care program. Bob and Barb are also foster parents, currently caring for four children. Bob and Barb have been foster parents for 25 years and Natasha has been a foster parent for 19 years. They say the ministry has been insulting and unhelpful in the aftermath of the fire, despite the decades-long relationship between the family and the ministry.
Almost immediately after the fire, a ministry worker informed Natasha that she had 30 days to find a new place or the children could be taken from her because Natasha’s contract with the ministry states she must have her own dwelling with enough bedrooms for each of the children to have their own.
“It’s tough some days, but it is equally rewarding or you wouldn’t do it. It’s not for everyone to be a foster parent, but it’s something we’ve chosen as a family to give back. We feel it’s our calling,” Natasha says. “And then I don’t have the home any more so now I’m told … ‘you have a month to find a suitable place to raise these children.’”
Candelora says the ministry’s lack of flexibility on the timeline is unreasonable because rental properties are scarce in the Terrace area and the ministry offered no help in locating a rental or financial assistance with rent despite the fact that rent prices are much higher than her monthly mortgage payment. She says the ministry should have contingency funding to support foster families in crises.
“You would think that there would be maybe something set aside by the government for emergency,” she says. “Don’t tell me that there isn’t some funding.”
She says the notion that her children could be taken from her adds unnecessary pressure to an already stressful situation.
“So these kids that know no one but me as their mother would have to go live with someone [else],” Natasha says through tears. “If they’re not with me they’ve been with my parents. They don’t know anyone but us. And they’re going to have to suffer and be punished for something out of all of our control? Because it’s not [ministry] policy?”
“When we try to resolve situations in the ministry, we always get ‘well, it’s our policy,’” Bob says. “Even though the policy doesn’t make any common sense, even if you couldn’t live by that policy, we are expected to live by that policy.”
The ministry offered only limited financial support to replace the children’s belongings like jackets and boots, Bob says.
“It was very insulting for [ministry workers] to come out here two days after the fire with a dozen donuts and four cups of coffee and $200 for one child and $200 for another child to replace everything that [the children] owned,” Bob says.
The family says they could face consequences for speaking out against the ministry, which has a culture of silence, but they are fed up with the mistreatment.
“Because of what I have said … I could [metaphorically] have a knife to my throat tomorrow,” Bob says.
“It’s their own little secret society,” Natasha says.
“It’s sad. And that’s why in our community we have very few foster parents. And very few relief workers,” Bob says.
A manager of the local ministry office refused a request for comment and would not provide a reason why.
Angus Noble, a public affairs officer who works for the ministry at the provincial level, said foster parents are required to have their own home insurance that covers emergencies like fires or floods.
“In addition, [the ministry] supports the availability of ‘Extended Property Damage (Rider) Insurance’ to supplement a residential caregiver’s homeowner or tenant insurance policy,” Noble said in an email statement. “This mirrors a foster parent’s basic coverage where damage is caused by a child or youth in care.”
Noble said that when a foster parent suddenly loses access to housing, the ministry will work the parent to find a suitable alternative. He said that if the foster parent’s insurance didn’t cover the cost of alternative housing, the ministry may be able to pay for temporary support such as a hotel stay.
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On Nov. 5, Natasha said she had finally secured a rental for her and the children. That was a great relief, she said, though many challenges for the family still lie ahead, such as ironing out insurance details, managing the tricky financial situation, and creating a sense of normalcy for the children.
She’s deeply grateful to the Terrace area community who helped her family by donating money and clothing, particularly for the children.
“They’ve got a decent pair of winter boots on their feet,” she said. “Without the community’s help, honestly I would have been screwed.”
Natasha said relying on the community and her family for help can be uncomfortable at times, because she was so proud to have lived as an independent woman raising her children before the fire. Nevertheless, she appreciates the help.
Anyone interested in providing support to the family can contact Natasha directly at natashacandelora@gmail, or through Facebook.