When Gary and Linda Jones walked out of their home on April 19, it did not occur to them that they would not be going back in.
“I just figured I was coming out to see a fire, not be part of the fire,” said Linda.
Their van was parked in the driveway on the side closest to the house that was already burning.
“I had enough presence of mind when I came out to bring the keys with me and the first thing I did was get in the van and drive away,” said Gary.
In videos that have been posted online of the fire which ended up destroying three homes in The Village, it looks like he is backing right out of a fireball.
“It looks like it was right in the fire,” he said. “It wasn’t at that point, but by the time I got back there was no going into the garage to get the motorcycle out… it was destroyed.”
Linda said it was tough to stand across the street and watch her house burn. She had just thrown on a coat, a pair of Crocs and grabbed her phone but did not even think to bring her purse.
“It was just that quick,” said Gary.
“It was just like – it’s leaping across, oh it’s on the shingles – oh no,” said Linda. “It’s terrifying and you are numb. You are just in a state of shock.”
It was hard to return the next day, with daylight revealing the extent of the damage.
“When we left at midnight to go to the motel it was steam and water everywhere,” she said. “You couldn’t really see anything.”
They had already downsized to move to The Village for their retirement.
“It’s different when you decide I’ll take this with me but I’ll get rid of this when you are downsizing, but…”
Linda’s voice cracked as she started to cry quietly.
“…it’s a little harder because you don’t have a choice.”
Now, when she leaves The Village she makes sure she avoids driving past the burnt remains of their house.
“It’s harder and harder to drive by and look at it so I’ll be glad when they come to take it away because I don’t need the reminder,” she said.
Gary reached a hand across the table to hold Linda’s hand and tenderly offer support as she spoke.
“People have been really generous,” she said. “Even when we went to the hotel and had a hot shower, washed our hair because they provide soap and everything and then damn, I realized I don’t even have a comb, you don’t have anything.”
A friend put a request on the internet for donations of clothes and had to take it down within one hour because she was inundated with so much.
“We took it, sorted through it, laundered it and donated it because there was more stuff than we could use,” said Gary.
With this happening during the pandemic, it has not been easy to replace some items, like a pair of running shoes, which is something Linda said she has problems buying at the best of times. She said she has feet that are tough to find a comfortable fitting shoe for.
“We were walking every day but I don’t have running shoes to walk in for exercise,” she said. “It’s different walking out to the van to go to the store but walking kilometres, I don’t have shoes for that yet.”
Part of the reason they moved to their house was that they are getting older and their health is not what it used to be. They take a lot of medication. In fact, on the night of the fire, Linda missed a shot of insulin. She’s diabetic.
“The next morning the drugstore was good at getting it ready right away and reissuing everything – Gary’s medication too,” she said. “It’s things you just don’t think about.”
She also has sleep apnea so she needed to replace her CPAP machine.
“It’s $1,200 to get the sleep apnea machine replaced,” said Gary.
For the first two weeks after the fire, they were living with family in Stratford but they had to keep commuting.
“Before that, we were keeping our distance for the pandemic… we hadn’t seen them and then we were living with them,” said Linda. “We’ve had outdoor visits and stuff but we’ve been sticking to the guidelines.”
“We’ve both had our first injections so we’ve been inoculated,” said Gary. “We go back at the end of July and have our booster shot.”
COVID-19 was in the back of their minds during this whole crisis because all of a sudden they were out in the night with many firefighters and other people around.
“I didn’t even have a mask because I walked out just figuring I was going out for a look, not going out to be out forever,” said Linda.
The next day there were firefighters, police and insurance adjusters around the remains of the three houses which had burned.
“In that first week (we came in) contact with people from all over the place because they were there doing their jobs,” she said. “We wore masks because we don’t know these people either.”
Linda said the crisis has been a learning experience, but people have been supportive and generous.
“People we haven’t seen from the past have come forward, donated and left notes,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by some people’s generosity.”
Linda choked up and began crying again.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said. “They must be like – don’t these people have insurance? But we were insured.”
Gary said he knows people who insured themselves for what the replacement cost of their home would be, but they had not looked at the replacement cost, just the market value.
“You need to look at lumber prices,” he said. “You need to look at the fact that a two-by-six that would have cost $10 a few years ago might cost $40 or $50 now. The price has escalated substantially because of the cost of materials more than anything.”
Linda said their insurance company has been good and they have been working with them during the process of getting quotes and finding contractors to do the work they will need to get done. They were happy to report that local contractors gave fairer prices than the companies their insurance company first reported back with.
An issue they are having problems dealing with in the aftermath is that their house was different from most in The Village. It was not a modular home, but a house that was built on-site on a foundation.
“There are about four of them in The Village that were built that way,” said Gary. “The problem is now we haven’t been able to get approval to rebuild that way. We may have to tear everything that has to do with that house out right down to the bottom of the foundation, backfill the lot, put a slab down and put a modular home on top of the slab so that pushes the cost up too.”
Insurance is covering the cost of the home they are temporarily renting and they have paid three months of rent so far. The first estimates they have are that it will probably take until at least January to get a house on their lot again. Some modular home companies have said they have waiting lists between one and two years long.
“The people at Pike Lake who sell Northlander Homes are indicating they have enough in the flow that they could move a couple around that don’t have pending deliveries and they could put us into one by probably the end of November, but then the cost is substantially more than we are insured for,” said Gary.
A GoFundMe (https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-linda-and-gary-jones-rebuild-their-home) started by their daughter has a goal of $50,000 which could cover about a quarter of the shortfall from their insurance to get a full-size modular home that has all the features they had in their former home.
“It’s not even the fact that real estate is increasing,” said Gary. “It’s the cost of materials in particular. It’s gone so high that it has pushed the cost to build right out of sight.”
“Anything you get an estimate on is tentative because nothing is going to happen until the fall so they will say – here is the price but it could go up 30 per cent,” said Linda. “We moved here because it had a ramp and no stairs.”
They had a full two-storey house with a walk-up attic before. It was 14 steps a floor and three or four steps to get into the house.
“We moved here because of our age and our health – we’re not getting younger at this point in our lives,” she said. “It’s important to us to have what we had. I’m retired. He’s not, but soon will be and we were mortgage-free. Now this will put us back into a mortgage.”
“We had a quote from Northlander that was $350,000 for the house and $16,000 to put it on a pad and that was after we had removed every little bit of the existing house,” said Gary. “The original price we got for just the removal of the house was $30,000. We’ve since gone to other contractors locally and we’re at a point where we can probably bring that down to $12,000 to $15,000, but if we could build on the foundation we have it’s about $6,000 to demolish the house and set it up to build on the existing foundation.”
If they have to go with the modular home that was proposed by Pike Lake, it’s likely going to cost more than $400,000 and they will still have to deal with accessibility issues because it will be placed on a pad.
“When we bought our house it was $140,000,” said Gary. “Four years later as far as the building is concerned it’s probably in the $200,000 range but that’s half of (what we need).”
“It just blows me away that a modular home… is $400,000,” said Linda. “When they came back and gave us a quote I was in shock, like, you’re kidding me. This is not luxurious living. It’s adequate.”
If they get permission to rebuild the on-site home as it was, Gary said they have been given a rough quote of $250,000, but by the time it’s done they realize it might be $300,000 or more.
“It’s buyer beware even for your insurance because we’re insured and we didn’t figure there would be such a discrepancy in getting what we had replaced,” said Linda.
“We were looking at it from the other side saying, ‘we’re going to be fairly fortunate here because if we were to sell this tomorrow we’d get a lot more than we paid for it,’” said Gary. “We weren’t thinking what happens to it if it’s destroyed – can we replace it?”
The zoning for The Village requiring modular homes, not homes built on-site, changed around 1988.
“So we haven’t yet been able to get a ruling from the town to say yes you can go ahead and rebuild what you had,” said Gary. “We found out, near as we know, the house was built in 1996 so we’re at a point now where we are asking them to go back and find the permits for that build and then determine from there what we have to do to comply. It seems strange that we can’t rebuild what was there because it doesn’t meet the code that is established now. If it doesn’t meet the code that existed then how did it get built in the first place?”
“It might be selfish but I want what I had,” said Linda. “This is not our fault. Gary has Parkinson’s and he has problems with his knees. My knees are not too bad but I am getting older too and I appreciate no steps. That’s why we moved here for convenience. That’s why we bought it because it had everything we need for our future – our golden years.”
Linda laughed sarcastically.
“What a joke,” she said.
She warned people to look at their house insurance again.
“We might have been (almost) 50 per cent higher in value but we were three times (the purchase price) to rebuild,” said Gary.
“Unfortunately we’re finding out the hard way there is a shortfall,” said Linda. “Our adjuster, we’ve seen every week since the fire and I really feel he’s doing his best but it’s still coming up short.”
“Now we’re looking at where we can make up the difference,” said Gary. “Even if this GoFundMe reaches its goal of $50,000, that will probably be a quarter of what we need in addition to insurance.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner