Suspicious house fire dampens Christmas plans for one Nuu-chah-nulth family

Denise Titian, December 21, 2017

Shelley Frank awoke to her house on fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 16. Part of the structure was damaged, leaving the rest of the house without power. Police said the cause of the fire is suspicious.(Denise Titian, Shelley Frank photos)

Port Alberni — 

An early morning fire has forced a Nuu-chah-nulth family from their home and into a hotel room just days before Christmas.

Shelley Frank, mother of two teens, said she was awakened to an odd noise in the early morning hours of Dec. 16. “It was like the sound of wood falling, like a two-by-four and it made an echoing sound and I could hear a man yelling,” she recalled. Her first thought was that it was probably drunks in the alley but she got up to investigate anyway.

Frank’s bedroom is at the front of the house facing the street. When she peeked through the window blind she noticed her neighbor’s white truck was glowing red. Still not knowing what it was, she walked down the hallway to check on her 13 year-old son, whose bedroom is at the back of the house.

“When I walked past my mother’s room I saw her window blinds were glowing red and through one of the broken slats, I noticed the flames,” said Frank. Frantic, Shelley ran through the house yelling fire. Her son and spouse quickly gathered up a few belongings and were out of the house in less than two minutes.

The neighbor’s carport was fully engulfed in flames and the fire had spread to a wooden storage shed on Frank’s property. The shed is about 10 feet from the main house.

Frank does not own a cell phone and called 911 on her home phone. The Port Alberni Fire Hall is less than two blocks away but still, to Frank, watching the fire spread from the neighbor’s garage, to the back of her house, the wait felt like forever.

“We were the first ones on the street and we couldn’t hear anything but the fire,” she recalled. Shelley’s mother was out of town and her daughter, who happened to be having a birthday that day, was also out of town, at college.

According to Wes Patterson, deputy fire chief with the Port Alberni Fire Department, the incident has been deemed suspicious until all other causes are ruled out. An RCMP investigation is underway.

Patterson said when they arrived on the scene shortly after 3 a.m. on Dec. 16 the carport and two vans were fully involved, along with Shelley’s shed and the back of her house was starting to burn. They moved to save Shelley’s house first then put their attention to the carport, which couldn’t be saved in any event.

The fire appears to have started in the neighbor’s carport. There is a four plex next door filled with families with small children. The fire spread to a storage shed in Frank’s back yard then jumped over to the back of her house, melting the siding and cracking windows.

The family watched as the power lines began melting then spitting out sparks. Two vans parked near the carport also burned.

About an hour after she woke, the fire was out. The family was able to re-enter the damaged home but had no power. They slept for a couple of hours then gathered a few sets of clothes and went to a hotel.

“When I woke up I realized that this is not a dream and I have to get up and deal with it,” said Frank.

Shelley bought the house in 2012. “I just wanted a safe place for my kids; I put a new roof on the house and built back fence to keep them safe,” she said.

Frank has insurance but must pay for everything up front to be reimbursed later. With the two hotel rooms they need costing $225 a night and having to eat in restaurants; Frank’s paycheque was spent in no time.

“People might think that staying in a hotel is like having a vacation but this is no vacation,” said Frank. The restaurant in the hotel has been closed for months and the hotel rooms only have a mini fridge, microwave oven and a coffee maker to cook with. “We can’t do laundry and the mortgage, car and insurance payments are still coming out of my bank account,” said Frank.

On the fourth night in the hotel, Frank had only $49 left in her bank account and hotel management was demanding payment.

Proudly independent, Frank hates to ask for help. With tears in her eyes she shared that she called her first nation, Ahousaht, pleading for help. She was assured that a cheque would come but it hasn’t yet arrived.

“I told the kids that Christmas will have to wait this year,” she said. It will take a while for the family to recover from this unexpected emergency. To make matters worse, the fire was deemed suspicious. “Why would someone do that?” Frank asked. All of the families affected by the fire have children whose lives were put in danger.

Frank is hoping for good news from her insurance adjuster on Dec. 21. Electricians are at the house working on damaged electrical components. If her power can be restored she will be able to move back into her damaged home, financially drained, but with her heart filled with gratitude for the safety of her family and for those that helped her in her time of need. “Every little bit helps,” she said through tears.

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