“It’s the second time we’ve lost everything in three years,” says Jared Szeles quietly. “When we were moving [to Ashcroft] from Trail three years ago, we came down here before the move, and some people took advantage of our being away to pose as movers and take almost everything we had. All we had left were a few baby and wedding photos.
“We’d finished replacing everything that needed replacing. And now we’ve lost it all, including those baby and wedding photos.”
Szeles is referring to the early morning fire on Sunday, Jan. 20 that destroyed his family’s home on Brink Street in Ashcroft. He reached out to The Journal to talk about the event, and how much worse things could have been.
On the night of the fire it was just Szeles at home with his two daughters: 12-year-old Emma and eight-year-old Ella. His wife Charity was staying overnight with a friend who has cancer, and Szeles says he and Ella had been downstairs watching cartoons while Emma was in her room on the second floor.
“Ella fell asleep on the love-seat, and I sat down beside her and nodded off as well. I woke up when I heard thumps upstairs. I thought maybe my wife had come home, but where I was near the bottom of the stairs I’d have seen her.
“Then the lights dimmed, and went back to normal, and dimmed again. There was another thump, and I thought someone was upstairs stealing my tools, which I’d put on the balcony.”
Szeles started up the stairs, and saw smoke coming from the second floor. “I ran up the stairs, and there was this searing wall of heat that burned my face. I took a deep breath without thinking, and my lungs filled up with smoke.
“You learn about fire safety as a kid, but you have no idea how bad it is. My lungs were full of smoke, and I couldn’t move My knees buckled, and I fell back down the stairs, to fresh air. That saved my life.”
Knowing that Emma was upstairs, Szeles crawled back up the stairs. “I hit my daughter’s door with my hand, and the door was so hot it blistered my hand. I heard Emma ask what was going on, and I yelled at her to get out because the house was on fire. I heard her window slide open and figured she was going out to the balcony.”
Szeles went back downstairs and ran outside with Ella, telling her to get away from the house. He grabbed a ladder and leaned it precariously against the balcony, then climbed up to get Emma.
“She emerged out of the smoke, but didn’t want to go down the ladder, because I hadn’t had time to position it very well and it looked unstable. But I coaxed her onto it, and we got to the bottom, and I could see that the whole top floor was engulfed. I couldn’t believe how fast it had spread.”
Szeles ran to the front of the house, where a temporary lodger was staying, and broke a window with his hand, yelling at the man to get out (the lodger escaped safely). Then Szeles looked around for something to grab and save from the burning house.
“I knew we would lose everything. I threw out some boots and winter jackets that were near the door, and a plastic tote with clean laundry that I’d washed and folded. I got some pictures, and medical and legal documents, and brought them out. I debated going in again, and then thought ‘No, I can’t.’ I knew I had to be here for my daughters, had to be with them, and not go back inside to save stuff.
“Stuff is just stuff. We can get more. The pictures are gone, but we will always have the memories. And we can rebuild.”
Emma and Ella were still in the street, watching, when Szeles left the house. “I thought there’d be pandemonium in the street, but no one had come out, and all the windows were closed. We walked across the street to Shauna Bolton’s house, and I asked her to call 9-1-1.”
Bolton wrapped Ella in a blanket and gave Szeles and Emma, both of whom had inhaled smoke, glasses of water. “She kept the girls calm,” says Szeles. “She put cartoons on for them, and gave Ella a bath.”
He and his daughters were taken by ambulance to Ashcroft Hospital, where they were checked for smoke inhalation and lung damage, and Szeles had his injured face and hands—which had been cut when he broke the window—assessed.
When Charity got home, Szeles—thinking of the items he’d managed to throw clear of the house—told her “Don’t worry, honey, I saved what I could: some pictures, some documents, some clothes.” When he was able to return to the house, however, he saw that he had not managed to throw them far enough; in the blistering heat from the intense fire, the items had burned.
“At that point I kind of crumbled,” he says. He was trying to pull one of the winter coats out of the ice when Shelbey English came by and asked what he was doing. Szeles explained that he was trying to salvage what he could, and says that English immediately began to help.
“He said we’d get [the jackets] out and throw them in his car; then he’d take them to his house, hose them down, and wash them five times, if that was what it took.” Some of the coats were able to be salvaged, and English washed them over the next day.
The family are now staying at a motel in Cache Creek, and have received Emergency Social Services support from the Red Cross. Szeles says they’ve had vouchers for food, and for items from Fields, and that the Ashcroft and District Lions Club gave them $250 to purchase needed items. They’ve also had lots of clothing donated, and the promise of items such as furniture when they find a place to rent.
Szeles credits Shauna Bolton, who put out a call for donations on Facebook, for much of the outpouring of support, and can’t thank her enough for what she did.
“We knocked on her door and she took us in. She’s been an angel. And Shelbey got me back up when I was faltering, got me up and moving. The lady from BC Ambulance Service who took us to the hospital said to me ‘Tonight you’re a hero; you saved a little girl’s life.’ And she asked if she could give me a hug.
“Everyone has been great. People ask ‘What do you need?’ and we’re grateful for the help and offers of help. We have food to eat, and clothing, and a roof over our head, but we’re overwhelmed.
“We’re looking at the short term and long term future, trying to break things down and figure out the way forward, trying to get out of the shock and trauma of losing our house and everything we own. We need to get out of survival mode and get into move forward mode.”
The house belonged to Szeles’ grandparents and then to his mother, Sharla Dubroy, from whom the family was renting it. Szeles, who was born in Ashcroft and grew up here, has known it since he was a child, and says that its loss has been hard on his mother as well as on him and his family.
Szeles mentions that he recently applied to go on disability from his job at IG Fibers, and several times during the conversation comes back to the fact that, as a man, he feels some shame at having to ask for help and not being able to look after his family.
“I can’t provide for my family right now, and there’s lots of fear and insecurity. I’m just trying to keep everyone safe, and reaching out for help, trying to recover from losing our home. It’s been devastating for us all. At least last time we still had a place to go to. But we do the best we can.”
He adds that Charity feels guilty about having been away when the fire started. “But it worked out the way it had to. If Charity had been home we’d have all been upstairs. [Fire Chief] Josh [White] says he’s amazed no one died; the fire was so incredibly hot, so incredibly fast. It was ferocious.”
Szeles pauses. “It’s heartbreaking to lose the family home, but we’re all here. We’re all safe. That’s what’s important. I came so close to losing my daughter.
“And I’m glad to be here in this small town. People here know what it’s like to lose everything to fire. Everyone has been so gracious and warm; a big thank you to all who have wished us well. It’s been heartwarming.”