Hay River steps up to help family who lost house to fire

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A young family in Hay River is still recovering after losing their home – and a beloved pet dog – to a fire on Christmas Eve, but they have the community behind them.

“I can’t get over the amount of help that we’ve had,” said Nicole Miller, noting that help came in the form of donations and clothing, and even toys for her young son dropped off until after midnight on Christmas Eve.

Miller, her husband Steven Brunet and their five-year-old son Liam Brunet are now staying with Brunet’s mother while they recover from the fire.

Miller said the support from the community has been overwhelming.

“I don’t know how to thank people,” she said. “I just know that we’re very, very lucky in every aspect of this where we still have each other and we have the community supporting us and praying for us, and their kind words.”

Miller and her husband – who are both from Ontario – have lived in Hay River on and off since 2008, and returned in 2017 after several years in Alberta.

A young family in Hay River –- Steven Brunet and Nicole Miller, and their five-year-old son Liam Brunet -– lost their home to a fire on Christmas Eve.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Miller

“It’s a small community, but they really step up when somebody is in need and it makes it even more like home,” she said of Hay River. “You’re not alone here. You have people that actually care.”

Miller and her husband had just bought their first home on Pine Crescent, before losing it and everything in it to the fire.

“The purchase date was sometime in December,” she noted. “Our first mortgage payment was set to come out in January.”

The house was insured.

The loss of their dog Rocky was the hardest part for Miller, who had to pause while speaking about her pet.

“Our dog has just been with us forever,” she said. “Everyone that knew us, knew him. We would take him everywhere.”

The family had the dog since 2008, when they got him in Enterprise when he was just a few months old.

Losing Rocky was harder than losing possessions, Miller explained. “I’m not a materialistic person. I’m not going to say I don’t care that my house burned, but it’s not what matters to me. For us to lose a family pet, it’s devastating. It’s very hard. And that’s the only thing that makes me cry about the whole thing.”

The importance that Miller placed on Rocky is proven by the fact that she and a female friend entered the smoke-filled residence to try to save the pet when they discovered the fire after arriving at the house on the afternoon of Dec. 24.

There was no smoke coming from the house, but when Miller opened the door she found her home was full of black smoke.

“I couldn’t see anything, and all I remember doing was I went through to the house,” she said. “I went into our kitchen and I was just feeling for my dog because I thought maybe he would be around.”

Miller couldn’t find Rocky and exited the house to tell her friend in a vehicle that there was a fire, and the friend called the fire department.

Her friend then entered the house and found Rocky.

“She carried him outside and put him in my arms,” said Miller. “He was already gone by that point.”

She recognizes that it was dangerous to enter the smoke-filled house, where it was hard to see and breathe, and said she and her friend probably shouldn’t have done that.

“I was just thinking of finding my dog,” she explained.

Miller and her friend were taken to hospital after the incident, where they spent about six hours being checked for smoke inhalation.

On the day after the fire, Fire Chief Ross Potter said the cause is believed to have been an electrical fault.

“Nothing they could have done about it,” he said. “It wasn’t from Christmas decorations or anything like that.”

The trailer is still standing and there are no exterior signs that there had been a fire inside.

“You’d never know it from the outside that it had a fire,” said Potter.

Miller said the fire doesn’t change the family’s plans to make Hay River their home.

“We’re staying,” she said.

Miller said the family appreciates the help they have received.

“We are very grateful and thankful to be living in Hay River,” she said. “I mean our hearts are broken, but we have a community behind us.”

Her brother in Ontario also started a GoFundMe initiative on the Internet which collected $11,210 from 100 donors, many of them in Hay River.

Miller said no decision has been made on what to do with that financial support, but it will probably go towards a down payment for another trailer to put on the Pine Crescent lot.

She said nothing is salvageable from the burned house, and the family will be starting over from scratch.

And the community is still thinking of them.

Days after the fire, Miller checked the mailbox for the fire-damaged house and found a Christmas card with a handmade ornament in the shape of a paw print and word ‘Rocky’ written on it.

“I cried,” she said of finding the tribute to her lost pet. “People are still thinking about us. It’s just heart warming.”

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