Jessica Laxton and Bill Connell lost almost everything in a fire that destroyed two Maple Ridge rental homes early Thursday morning.
What remains are two blackened wedding rings that withstood the intense heat and smoke of a fire that wrecked the homes of seven people and traumatized a neighbourhood.
“The firemen went through our charred jewelry box,” said Laxton, who lived with Connell in the basement suite of a two-storey home at 11710 223rd St.
“The rings are black.”
The fire appeared to have started in a carport attached to the other rental property destroyed in the blaze, a bungalow at 22318 117th Ave.
The occupants of that house – Claire Eastwood, her boyfriend Dale Batley and her sister Judy Eastwood – were equally devastated by the blaze.
The fire brought back bad memories for Eastwood, who lost almost all of her possessions in another house fire four years ago. Improbably, while the Eastwoods and Batley lost pretty much everything, firefighters salvaged a box of photographs that had also survived Claire’s first house fire.
The fire in the bungalow quickly spread to the house occupied by Laxton and Connell, who were awakened by a neighbour banging on the doors and windows telling them the place was on fire and they needed to get out.
The first call to the fire department came at 3: 20 a.m. and firefighters were on the scene 10 minutes later.
Firefighter Dave Harcus said it took firefighters four hours to get the fire under control.
The houses were so badly damaged that the District of Maple Ridge brought in an excavator and demolished both buildings by early Thursday afternoon.
Laxton said while the fire department doesn’t know what caused the fire, she believes it was suspicious.
“We think it was arson,” Laxton told a reporter. “Somebody said they saw a person ride away from the carport on their bicycle really fast.”
Maple Ridge Fire Chief Peter Grootendorst said he doesn’t know whether the fire was arson, but an investigation continues.
He said a fire recently destroyed a garage across the lane but he’s not sure the two fires are related.
“Our investigation is looking into whether it is linked but there is no indication at this time that it is,” he said.
Grootendorst said none of the seven residents – including two who lived upstairs from Laxton and Connell – appeared to have any insurance and Maple Ridge’s emergency social services team have made arrangements for the three families to stay in a local motel for a few days.
The fire took a heavy toll on residents’ pets. Laxton and Connell’s dog, Baby Girl, survived, but not without trauma.
Confused by the commotion and perhaps disoriented or frightened by the smoke, the dog tried to hide in the couple’s home as the fire spread from one house to another. Connell said he had to run back to the house five times because Baby Girl kept running back in. Lax-ton and Connell also lost an aquarium full of fish.
Claire Eastwood said their dog Pal escaped with them, but she doesn’t know what happened to their cats, two adults and four kittens.
Batley, 68, is a pensioner. His partner Claire, 49, is a bookkeeper. Her sister Judy, 48, is on disability.
They came back Thursday afternoon to sift through the wreckage, but all they could find, apart from the photos the firefighters saved, was an old barbecue.
The house Laxton and Connell lived in is owned by Dr. Biju Mathew of Maple Ridge. He was stunned by the destruction.
“This is terrible,” Mathew said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Assessment records show Mathew’s property was valued this year at just over $308,000.
The house the Eastwoods and Batley lived in is owned by Xing Ping Wynnie Zeng of Maple Ridge. It was valued at $310,900.
-Lee and Conner are reporters for the Vancouver Sun