When a house on Obed Avenue caught fire Sunday night, the worst moments weren't when the family photo albums and Christmas gifts burned to ash. Or when when smoke saturated the clothes and furniture and worldly possessions of a four person family with a cat, a dog and a rabbit. Or even when they were turned away from the first hotel they went to after the fire.
The worst moments were those few minutes when two parents weren't sure if their teenage son was somewhere in the basement, lost behind a pall of thick tarry smoke.
Tanya Burt and husband Jason Yamkowy were watching TV at 9:30 p.m., their daughter, nine-year-old Lexi, was sleeping and son Nathan was in their downstairs rec room.
"We were watching TV upstairs and started to smell smoke. I thought my son was doing something," Burt recalled on Thursday. "I opened the door to the basement and black smoke poured out.
"I yelled four or five times for (Nathan). I thought he was passed out. I ran outside to the exterior door to the basement, and my husband took our daughter next door."
Neighbour Jessica Peterson, 20, heard pounding on her front door and found Yamkowy with no coat or shoes, carrying his daughter wrapped in a blanket. Her father and boyfriend ran out to help, and her mom called 9-1-1.
"I could hear the mom screaming the house was on fire and they couldn't find their son, they couldn't find Nate," Peterson said. "Both windows burst open, flames were coming through the window. It was pretty scary."
"It's a blank feeling, helplessness. There was no fear yet, it was right before fear," Yamkowy said. "I was trying to call 9-1-1 and I'd dial 9-1 and my phone would screw up."
Nathan, 16, emerged from the backyard after taking their dog for a walk a few minutes before fire erupted in the basement. He could hear screaming and thought someone was being attacked.
"I'd never heard that sound in my life. It pierced my headphones and it came from inside the house," said Nathan, a student at Vic High. "I heard my mom as she came out the door."
It wasn't long before flames exploded out a basement window and crawled up the side of the house. Saanich firefighters arrived moments later and killed the blaze in a minute, but the damage was done.
"It was so fast. In 10 minutes everything was gone," Burt said. "The fire chief said flames went upstairs through the vents."
No one was hurt and their pets were rescued, but the family was without contents insurance and lost most of their possessions due to smoke damage. "We salvaged a My Little Pony for Lexi," Burt remarked.
The fire started in a living area in the basement, but the cause is ruled as undetermined. Saanich fire inspector Carl Trepels said he doesn't believe the cause is electrical and it wasn't intentionally set. The fire caused $200,000 in structural damage to the home.
"It's very hard to determine the cause. The fire was quite hot and it spread rapidly," he said. "It got into the ceiling space and was able to spread that way."
The community responds
Adding to the surreal and devastating evening, Yamkowy said he was turned away from the first hotel he tried on Gorge Road East. He walked in dishevelled, no shoes, carrying his daughter and smelling of smoke, but he had cash – and was told it was hotel policy to require a credit card for a room.
"I told them my house just burned down," he said. No dice.
The Victoria Ramada Hotel took the family in, put them up for free for the night and staff donated wine for the parents, cookies, scarfs and gave them a cut-rate deal for an extended stay. It was the start of an outpouring of generosity from the community.
Burt said over the week, complete strangers dropped off socks and shoes at the hotel, and called her up offering furniture, clothing and cash. Her neighbour Jessica Peterson put a callout on Facebook and has raised $1,000 and counting from friends and guys from her dad's hockey team. She is organizing a bottle drive for Saturday, Dec. 14 at 42 Obed Ave.
"We knew they were having hard times since moving here. They have no insurance. I felt so horrible I had to do something," said Peterson, a 2011 Spectrum high school grad. "People are so generous. It's amazing."
After a lifetime in Yellowknife, N.T., Burt and Yamkowy and their kids moved to Victoria in November 2012 to run a coffee shop they'd bought in Bastion Square. The business went broke and closed in October.
Losing everything in a flash is overwhelming, but then so is the seemingly endless displays of generosity and kindness.
"It's incredible. We come from Yellowknife where the population is so transient. Here it's different," Burt said. "We've been here less than a year working day and night. People have come out of the woodwork to donate, people call me out of the blue saying I have a (Christmas) tree for you, I have a table for you.
"A woman called and said she's donating toys, clothes, music and furniture and that she'd take care of everything.
"I've never experienced in my life a community of people absolutely willing to reach out and make an effort, to disrupt their routines and do what they can (to help)."
"Everyone has been amazing. Our neighbours and strangers," Yamkowy said. "Complete strangers are donating money for us. It's overwhelming."
The Peterson family at 42 Obed Ave. is accepting bottles and donations on Saturday, Dec. 14, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. An account has also been set up at The Bottle Depot under "Obed House Fire." To contact Burt or Yamkowy directly, email email@example.com.
Ocean 95.8 and Jack FM studios at 817 Fort St., Heirloom Linens at Broadmead plaza, Rona in Langford and Tires Unlimited on Gorge Road East are accepting donations for the family until Dec. 19.