Heroic county residents rescue homeowners from Brucedale fire

Two Wellington County residents may have been the difference between life and death for two homeowners trapped in a bathroom while a fire consumed their Fifth Line house near here on Canada Day.

“I was driving home from work and … I thought it was a bonfire but as I got closer I realized that it was the front porch of the house that was engulfed,” Susan Birkholz, one of the area residents that helped the homeowners escape, told the Advertiser in a phone interview.  

However, her phone wouldn’t work to call emergency services.

“I went and … alerted the neighbours across the road and they called 911,” she said. “I guess the people there were out in the back and they had no idea what was going on.

“It wasn’t as though there was a crackling … [the fire] was just happening and unless you were actually in that area and looking at it you really wouldn’t notice.”    

At approximately 11:30pm the Guelph-Eramosa fire department received a call about the possible house fire north of Brucedale, said Guelph-Eramosa Fire Chief John Osborne.     

After alerting the neighbours Birkholz returned to the house to see if anyone was home and ran into Justin Leslie from Alma who stopped when he saw the fire on his way home from the Acton Canada Day fireworks.

“I ran to the house, around the house a couple times, and I started banging on windows,” Leslie told the Advertiser in a phone interview.

Birkholz found him while he was trying to alert the residents.

“When I came back out I said, ‘well the neighbours say that they’re not home’ but we noticed the vehicles so the two of us ran around to the back of the house … and when we got back there we heard them calling for help,” Birkholz said.

She said the smoke was so black and strong that she couldn’t get close to the structure but Leslie did.

“I went into the backyard with my shirt over my face and I couldn’t see them, I just told them to jump and wife came first, then husband,” he said.

The female homeowner was particularly nervous to exit the bathroom window, a window that was smaller than average and was a storey and a half from the ground, Birkholz said.

Leslie essentially caught them from the jump.

“I didn’t think I guess,” he said. “I didn’t really care about the house being on fire, because it was late at night I figured somebody had to be in the house.”

After everyone was safely out of the house, Birkholz said they all moved to safety to wait for the fire department.

However, Leslie returned to the fire to shut off the propane tanks attached to the house.

“There’s two 500lb tanks that were running the house but they were on the opposite side of where the fire was but I didn’t know how long the fire department was going to be so I shut them off,” he said. “They can blow up if something’s on fire in the house it will follow the gas line back.”

Leslie and the two homeowners were sent to hospital. They were treated for smoke inhalation, Osborne said.

“Upon arrival our crews were faced with a self-venting house fire,” Osborne said, explaining the flames went through some windows.

“We utilized four other fire departments to utilize water shuttle and after approximately two hours we had the fire under control.”

Osborne added the blaze “started interior and when we arrived it was already exterior.”

At one point there were 35 firefighters on scene from Rockwood as well as the Puslinch, Erin, Centre Wellington and Guelph fire departments.

“The residents were wakened by working smoke alarms,” Osborne said. “That’s what drew their attention to the fire, which was great. It would have been a very different outcome if they weren’t working.”

Birkholz said one of the homeowners told her once they were awakened they found they were blocked in the bedroom and couldn’t go down the hallway to get out of the house. That’s when they headed for the bathroom where they were rescued, she said.

The cause of the fire is unknown and Osborne, who estimated the damage was roughly $400,000, said the house was a total loss.

“The home has been released to the owners but the fire marshal is continuing their investigation,” he said.

During the investigation on July 2 hot spots flared up and Rockwood firefighters helped extinguish the spots.