Julie Smith had just returned from Christmas brunch with her parents and two sons, and was settling in for a quiet evening at home when she smelled gas.
She also heard a rumbling coming from the garage of her townhome in Baden, a community of about 5,000 people just minutes outside Waterloo, Ont.
"I thought — maybe something was going on with my washer or my dryer," said Smith.
As she got closer to the noise, she realized it was coming from her garage. She opened the door to find metre-high flames on the wall adjoining the rest of the home.
At first, she tried to put it out herself, smothering it with towels — but the flames only grew. That's when she called 911.
Cat rescue 'a huge miracle'
While the City of Waterloo has a fully staffed fire department, there are volunteers at Baden's fire hall.
"They would have all been at home with their families and loved ones, potentially having Christmas dinner or visits with friends and family," said Rod Leessen, chief of the Wilmot Township Fire Department, which includes the Baden area.
That's not lost on Smith.
"The whole time I was standing outside, I just I felt so eternally grateful to these people who are now missing out on their own family Christmas celebrations. The fact that they are volunteers just makes it that much more meaningful," said Smith. "They were at home comfortable, happy on Christmas Day and felt like they arrived in, you know, the blink of an eye."
They even rescued her two cats — Oscar and Hazel.
"And I did not think that was going to happen. So that was like a huge miracle and everyone on the street was just cheering."
Hoping to rebuild
Little else was recovered from the home. Explaining that to her two boys, who were with their father that afternoon, was a difficult conversation, said Smith, but they are handling it as well as can be expected.
"They're obviously very upset at losing our beautiful house ... all of their stuff, but they are just amazing children. And, I think they understand that, stuff is just stuff and we're all still together and safe now, and that's really what's most important."
Three other townhouse units that were at risk weren't damaged though, said the fire department. Leessen said it is too early to determine cause or a damage estimate.
Once the insurance and paperwork is settled, she and her boys hope to rebuild in the same location.