The future is uncertain for the residents of a Kelowna motel whose homes were gutted this weekend by fire.
“I don’t know where they’ll go — they’ll never get anything like that again,” said Guylaine Bolen over a coffee at the Denny’s, which is adjacent to the hotel where many of the long-term residents of the Walnut Grove Motel have been staying since fire ripped through their suites.
“It has been the only place for people who can’t afford $2,000-a-month-rent.”
Walnut Grove Motel is a bit of a throwback to simpler times in that neighbourhood. It’s been around since the ‘50s and owned by the same family since 1980. Some residents have had their rent frozen for decades, while others who found their way there in recent years are still finding it affordable.
Bolen’s home of seven years was spared from the worst of the fire though, for the time being, she’s locked out and that’s not been easy either.
“It hit me this morning,” she said. “I’m homeless.”
Her breakfast companion, Teresa A., has been a neighbour for the last four years and said she’s been trying to stay calm while navigating the rough waters of her newfound situation. She’s already contending with a series of health issues that made the motel the most viable option for living in the Okanagan in the first place.
“No kidding,” she said to Bolen, in response to her realization. “I’m very homeless.”
Teresa’s unit was razed by fire. The only possessions saved from the flames were her truck and, she said with a laugh, a barbecue.
“I was looking at pictures of the fire and I saw it was saved. The fire fighters must have moved it because of the propane tank, but it’s funny that it survived,” she said, noting that humour, is about the only salve for an otherwise traumatic situation.
“More than 40 years of memories are gone… A saddle my dad made me when I was two-years-old, is gone. I was five-years-old when he died and I’ve kept it with me since”
— Michael Vangsgaard (@mvangsgaard) July 8, 2017
She was in her unit when the fire broke out next door, but it didn’t take long for it to spread and that’s part of the reason why she wasn’t able to save anything herself, other than the wallet she had in her hand.
“I was just watching TV on my new sofa — the first sofa I’ve had in years — and I heard a loud bang and saw a bunch of people standing out front of my house.”
The Waters Edge North building on Truswell Road was attended by firefighters within minutes, though they didn’t access the fire in time to stop its spread.
“In a matter of 20 minutes both (condo) buildings were up in flames,” she said.
Unoccupied and unfinished, the Waters Edge North building was destroyed in the fire. All that remains is soot, charred wood and the concrete remnants of an elevator shaft.
It and its neighbouring structure may be damaged beyond repair. Of its 65 units, seven are completely destroyed and currently an estimated 130 residents are out of home. Between the floods that plagued put them on an evacuation list, and this fire it’s been a difficult period.
Much of the conversation about the fire has focused on those residents, said Stephen Shortt, and he is confused about why so little attention has been paid to the motel. He’s been especially bothered by some commentary that its end would be good for the neighbourhood.
He and his roommate had been residents of the motel for three years and he was at work when the fire broke out, setting off what he describes as one of the more surreal incidents of his life.
“My roommate, Ronda Anderson, left several messages and when I called her back she said ‘our house is on fire,’” said Shortt.
“I jumped in my car and started driving and right away I saw the smoke. It was super scary. I didn’t think it was real.”
He met Anderson at her work and together with their dogs they walked down to their home, which was on fire.
“The other building fell on top of ours,” he said, while bringing up a picture of its remains on his cellphone.
There’s little left of the suite that he called home. He’s happy Anderson saved their two dogs — a husky and a border collie— but a snake and a hamster perished in the blaze, like just about everything else.
“I lost everything I own except my work uniform and a cellphone,” he said.
Shortt, Anderson and Teresa have all said they didn’t have rental insurance. The same is true for others they’ve spoken to as well.
Some have said it’s simply been a matter of cost. They didn’t have the money.
“We literally have to start from scratch,” Shortt said. ”And it’s not going to be easy.”
Whether they’ll ever return to Walnut Grove remains to be seen.
Dennis Kovacic and his brother were bequeathed the property from their father and have been running it as a long-term rental for years.
Each of the displaced residents spoken to this week say he’s been more than fair, keeping their rent reasonable over the years rather than turning over the property to a developer for a mint.
“He’s a saint,” said Shortt, pointing out that perceptions about the residents of Walnut Grove are usually negative and it’s unfair. Its residents, he said, are varied, but usually of lesser means and supplemented by disability payments, and the like.
Kovacic said he’s aware of the perceptions, but doesn’t pay them much mind.
“Being situated on the creek here, it’s a wonderful area,” he said. “The people here are great. I pick and choose my tenants very carefully and I’ve created a community of good people. The place doesn’t look great, but the people are.”
Kovacic said he doesn’t have full access to the property yet, and he’s not sure what’s going to happen going forward.
“I would love to rebuild it, if possible. The entire complex is not all gone, so much of it I can run, as is.”
Fire officials have said that there will be an investigation into the fire, though most believe it to have been a byproduct of a construction incident. Many of those spoken to have said they saw the roofer, a young man who had burns from attempting to put the blaze out, wandering around shortly after the fire started, though officials aren’t confirming anything.