Joe Lafreniere is out of the hospital after his house caught on fire April 12, but he doesn't have anywhere to go. The Ruckle resident has been left without a home and only the clothes on his back.
“I was sitting on the couch watching TV when I saw flames coming through the sliding door,” he said. “I ran and filled up a big bucket – a big soup pot – of water and tried to put it out.”
By that time the fire was too involved to be controlled, he stated, adding he doesn’t know why he wasn’t aware of the fire sooner.
“It just took off,” he said. “It was uncontainable.”
He remembers his next door neighbour, Mitch Petersen coming in to help, “He’s the only one that I saw,” he said.
At this point, Lafreniere said the smoke was starting to affect him and he was in shock. He remembers going in and out of the house at least twice as he tried to stop the fire and save his friend.
“Mitch and I were both slapping him in the face,” he said of his friend, John Ozeroff, who was sleeping on the couch. “He wouldn’t wake up.”
Lafreniere spent three days in the hospital for minor burns and carbon monoxide poisoning. Even though hospital staff told him he will be alright, he is still feeling tired and nauseous from his ordeal. The physical effects will eventually pass but Lafreniere is more concerned about his future.
“I can’t even look at it,” said Lafreniere, referring to his house. “I start shaking and want to ball my eyes out.”
He had lived in the home for at least a decade and called it his custom project.
“I just did tile on the kitchen table,” he said. “I had an island in there and I put tile on that. I also tiled the bathroom floor – ceramic tile. I thought it looked pretty nice.”
Not only has he lost the fruits of his labour, but he hasn’t been able to salvage any of his possessions.
“I keep thinking, ‘Oh, that too, that’s gone … and that’s gone,” he said. “It’s really been traumatizing. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Lafreniere is staying with Petersen until the end of the month, but he doesn’t have any plans past that point. The property was insured but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to rebuild.
More neighbours come to help
Petersen wasn’t the only neighbour to lend a helping hand. Jeff Watson, Dave Atchinson and David Foile all tried to help pull the two victims out of the house.
“I saw smoke coming from Joe’s house,” said Watson. “I came running out.”
He saw Lafreniere come out of the house and went running back up to the door. Watson was worried there would be a back draft when he opened the door and yelled to stop him but Lafreniere kept going.
The door did blow Lafreniere backward but the two men have different versions of the event. Watson said he was blown over the railing but Lafreniere said it blew him backward but he wasn’t knocked over. He doesn’t remember being unconscious at any point during the fire. He feels that while he was affected by smoke, carbon monoxide and stress, he is still able to recall events accurately.
After Lafreniere opened the door, Foile and Atchinson worked to pull the railing down and get better access to the house, said Watson. At this point they saw Ozeroff laying in the doorway and pulled him out.
“It all happened real fast,” said Watson, adding he can’t remember who all was there. “I know I handed them both off to Dave and Dave.”
The events that happened that day seem to conflict with each other, but that’s not unusual in tense, high-adrenaline circumstances.
“People come up with different views on stuff,” said fire chief Dale Heriot, adding it’s possible they all played a role in helping out.
Watson says he isn’t worried about getting credit.
“I don’t care either way,” he said. “I’m just glad they're alright.”
This is a sentiment that Lafrienere’s sister, Val, shares.
“All that really matters is that people stepped up and helped out,” she said.
The Grand Forks Fire Rescue investigated the cause of the fire but weren't able to pin-point the origin.
“Our official ruling is ‘undetermined’,” said Heriot. He believes the fire started inside the building at the back of the house.
Two Grand Forks residents were pulled out of a burning house in the nick of time, thanks to the help of their attentive neighbour, Mitchel Petersen.
Petersen's evening started out with him visiting his next door neighbours and friends. He left them and went to bed early but was awoken when he noticed a glow outside his window. Petersen immediately took action, yelling to his partner that something was wrong and heading out into the yard.
“I ran to check it out,” he said. “The house was in flames. My adrenaline was going.”
Petersen ran to the house but couldn’t access the deck’s stairs because of the heavy smoke. Petersen climbed over the railing and kicked open the door. The smoke was thick inside and reached his knees.
His two friends, Joe Lafreniere and John Ozeroff, were sleeping inside. Lafreniere was able to get outside with only a little assistance but Ozeroff – known as Ozzie -- was harder to wake.
“He was still in sleep mode,” said Petersen.
At this point, both victims were on the deck and another man, Dave Atchinson, came to help Petersen. They tore the balcony down together to get easier access to the house.
Grand Forks Fire Rescue was called to the scene at 7:24 p.m. and found the building well-involved. Despite the severity of the fire, they were able to put it out quickly.
“The majority of the fire was out within the hour,” said Fire Chief Dale Heriot. Fire fighters stayed at the site for four hours to take care of minor flames.
“They did a really good job,” said Heriot of the fire fighters, adding that 23 of them attended the scene.
Lafreniere’s sister, Val, lives only a few doors down and arrived just before the fire department. She found her brother sitting outside.
“At first I didn’t even know if he was alive (until he started moving),” she said. “He was just sitting outside -- black, covered in soot and shaking his head.”
Both men had to be taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Lafreniere had burns on his face and spent two nights in the hospital.
“Joe says it just feels like a bad sunburn,” said Val, adding the hospital just gave him a topical ointment for the burns.
Ozeroff checked himself out as soon as he was admitted.
Val is extremely appreciative of Petersen’s actions.
“If it wasn’t for Mitch they wouldn’t even be here to talk about it,” she said, adding that the two were only moments from succumbing to the fire. Petersen agrees.
“In another five minutes they would have perished,” he said. “They thanked me severely.”
Petersen has some knowledge of fires. He spent years fighting wildfires before retiring. He was also involved in a house fire when he lived in Kelowna.
“Fires are very scary – yes,” he said, “But I had my adrenaline going and I knew I had to save lives. I had to save my buddies.”
While Lafreniere and Ozeroff are lucky to have been spared, Lafreniere did lose everything in the fire. The house belonged to his mother and when she passed away the title was split between the nine siblings. Lafreniere was living in it and lost all his and his mother’s possessions.
“All he has is his shirt on his back,” said Val.
Ozeroff lived in a recreational vehicle behind the property, which wasn’t damaged.
This is the second time their mother’s home has been involved in a fire. It caught fire six years ago due to an electrical problem. They were able to salvage the building and renovate it but this fire was more destructive.
“We have no plan at this time,” said Val. She doesn’t know if they will be able to rebuild but she is staying positive.
“We are just hoping something good will come of it,” she said.
This is the second fire in Ruckle in two weeks, but there is no sign of foul play, according to Heriot. The fire department is still investigating the cause and expects to have answers later this week.