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In flames: Local family navigates trauma after house-fire

Posted on March 15, 2023 by Sunny South News
Submitted photo of damage after the fire and explosion in Dec. 2022.

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

A local family is just beginning to find a way out of the ashes.
After a traumatic house-fire just a few weeks before the holidays, Danita McGinn said trying to navigate life post-fire has been a struggle.The lifelong Coaldale resident and her husband Buck, have several grown children and a three-year-old daughter who stays with Danita and her husband most of the time in a shared parenting arrangement.

On Dec. 6, the family heard a loud explosion, and moments later, turbulent flames permeated their home, leaving them with mere moments to get out. A fire had erupted quietly behind the drywall. The cause: a decades-old handy-work error where a drywall screw had wound up through a wire tucked behind the walls of the storage room. Over time, the material encasing the wire wore away, causing heat, and eventual flames. Soon, the quiet whoosh of the steady flames spread up and out, eventually creating enough heat to trigger an explosion of the flammable materials in the basement. The loud outburst was caused by the combustion of household paints and other aerosols in the storage room, and alerted those in the home that something was terribly wrong

Danita said the night of the fire was a typical night. Her and her husband retired early to bed, and their three-year-old daughter slept soundly across the hall, while a house guest slept downstairs. A call to 911 was placed shortly after 10 p.m. Now, looking back, Danita said the explosion saved their lives.

“We heard it, there was an actual boom that woke me up and started us in the evacuation process. It gave us a good two minutes above the whole house being engulfed in smoke and flames,” she said.

Danita said reconciling the loss and grief following the fire has profoundly impacted her mental-health.

Calling the emotional impact of the event, “inconceivable.” While her family was fortunate to make it out safe, several of the family’s beloved pets were lost in the fire. Danita identified how the loss of their possessions contained within the home point to a specific kind of grief.

“Never would I have thought that possessions and mementos, could have such an impact. When people say, ‘thank god’, part of me is like, ‘yeah, thank God’, but another part is just like you have no idea.”

Danita chooses her words thoughtfully, acknowledging her gratitude for the people making it out of the situation alive, but careful to honour the gravity of her family’s grief throughout the ordeal. Two things can be true at once.

“For months we didn’t know what we owned,” she said, “we didn’t know what was in our closet because it wasn’t ours. These new things weren’t things that we had chosen. Thank God they were there, but they weren’t things that we had chosen.”

Amongst the possessions lost were items of utility, irreplaceable keepsakes and mementos. It need not be a matter of materialism to acknowledge how possessions bring comfort, safety, and stability to one’s life. In terms of practicality, minimalism is a convenience of the rich. Danita expressed sincere gratitude for the various donations her family has received, and the outpouring of community support and donations, including a GoFundMe page organized by Danita’s sister which has received over $5,000 in donations to date.

“We would not be where we are without our community. I have repeatedly said, we live in the best place we could possibly live in,” adding the various ways people have shown support has been “vital” in their resilience thus far. “I am so grateful.”

The experiences she shared touched on the loss of autonomy, far less tangible than losing your home, nor any number of objects (replaceable or not), or trying to work through the grief of losing pets. Danita said her experience has shown her mental health supports are not adequate or accessible for people who are struggling. The aftermath of the fire has left her, at times, feeling alienated in a haze of disunity.

“Disassociation was huge for myself. I felt like I didn’t know who I was, like no part of my life was my own life.”

“A lady asked me how I was. I said, ‘I don’t really know, I stuck on stranger’s panties this morning.”

“There were pictures (of lost loved ones) on the wall, obituaries from the paper from my husband’s mom,” and the precious ashes of her Buck’s mother.

“We lost some of our pets, they are your best friends for six years, there’s a huge amount of grief there. We lost our feeling of safety and belonging.”

It has only been three months since the fire, most of which were spent in a fight or flight response, operating day-to-day in an emotional deficit.

“I know it sounds silly. I didn’t sleep for probably the first two weeks. I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would go check up on the baby; I would bring her into our room, I was afraid to take her to daycare. I would get up to look for my animals. I would open doors and windows so that I had an escape plan. I was afraid all the time.”

Danita said their lives changed drastically overnight in terms of their resources. Although her family was fortunate enough to have an “in” with a rental home shortly after the fire, she said the unexpected change in housing has put a further dent into the monthly budget and noted the implications of a lack of affordable rentals in Coaldale. Further, Danita shared how resources in navigating this kind of trauma has not been accessible.

“As far as mental health resources. I have been very, very open about the struggle on my mental health, with a lot of people,” but like many Albertans she said there are just not a lot of options for accessible mental health supports and said AHS has not been able to offer prompt access to resources categorizing her experiences and the profound cognitive and emotional impact as “lower priority” compared to the urgency of people intending to harm themselves or others.

Danita said her family recently received word that the homeowner has been granted permission back into the home, after three months, but said she doesn’t think the site will serve her family in any positive way. She wanted to share her experience to shed light on the lesser-known impacts and the far-reaching challenges of losing one’s “sense of reality,” caused by traumatic experiences.

“When I wake up and I am not afraid, or when I go to our drawers and find the thing I am looking for actually is in there. Those are moments that I’m like, ‘we got this,’” but said her family is still trying to navigate life with significantly less resources, and said the family continues to struggle with costly staples such as meat and other household “stock” items which are difficult to replenish from scratch.

For now the family is making progress to reestablish stability, which Danita said is complicated by limited access to both financial and emotional resources.

“It didn’t stop with the flames; it didn’t stop once we got a house. It will probably be challenge for a while.”

The family’s fundraising link can be found at, https://www.gofundme.com/f/cfq8qe-tragic-house-fire

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