The remains of a houseboat that burned to the pontoons early on Aug. 4 sits smoking on Mara Lake on Aug. 5, 2020. All 21 people and two small dogs onboard escaped unharmed from the burning boat. (Grace Dixon photo)

Father recounts narrow escape from Shuswap houseboat fire

Saskatchewan group overwhelmed by kindness of Sicamous, Salmon Arm communities

When Jon Witt, his family and friends were planning their summer vacation in the Shuswap, the coronavirus pandemic was the only danger which weighed on their minds.

From Saskatoon, they wanted to be responsible and avoid potentially spreading the virus. It was decided the group of 21 would rent a houseboat and enjoy the Shuswap while remaining in their family bubble.

“We thought this would be a nice, safe way to do things,” said Witt, an emergency physician who grew up in Salmon Arm.

Normally, it would be – but not this time.

The seven adults and their 14 children ranging from ages one to 19 picked up their houseboat on Mara Lake on Aug. 4 and tied up on shore near Hyde Mountain Golf Course for the night.

“We’d wear our masks, wash our hands, support the economy and get a bit of a holiday,” he explained. “In all honesty, that first night on Mara Lake was a beautiful evening. The kids were using the water slides, they had smiles on their faces, it was a wonderful night.”

About midnight, the houseboat’s generator was started because the group had been using air conditioners and other appliances. With it being the first night on the boat, Witt decided to stay awake while it was on.

After about an hour and a half, the generator started kicking out, he said. Then it stopped completely. Everything went dim and quiet.

Thinking the loss of power was odd, Witt looked down the hall and noticed a flickering light. He spotted a fire extinguisher and headed back to the area that housed the engine and generator. He opened the door a few inches, saw flames, and was hit with a blast of heat and smoke.

It was then he made a split-second decision. This was not the time to fight the fire, it was time to get off the boat.

He shouted ‘Fire! Fire!’ and ordered the mostly sleeping crew to get off.

Witt speaks with pride and awe of how everyone helped each other and exited in a fast, orderly way.

His voice falters with emotion when he speaks of the young people.

He said the teenagers went to the front of the boat and helped the young ones get down.

“Not only have we seen the community at its best, that night we saw our kids at their best.”

He said he’s known all the kids since they were little.

“To see them in life and death, to not run, not panic and to reach for their friends… There were flames overhead in that cabin and they got people off the boat.”

Everyone did their part, with one person setting up the gangplank and another, a teacher, counting heads. Included in the head count were their two small dogs.

Witt estimates that flames completely engulfed the houseboat just 30 seconds to a minute after they all got off and moved 150 feet away on shore.

Read more: Passengers escape unharmed from destructive houseboat fire on Mara Lake

Witt is a trauma team leader and was called in during the Humboldt Broncos bus crash as well as the La Loche school shooting. Ironically, the vacation was meant to be a break from stress in advance of the upcoming flu season.

With a laugh, he said his spouse pointed out that in his line of work, everything is a disaster waiting to happen. She said this is one time his hyper-alertness paid off.

The cause of the fire is now being investigated, a task which Sicamous Fire Chief Brett Ogino said will be difficult because of the houseboat’s total destruction.

Witt said he does not want this incident to hurt the houseboat industry or tourism in the Shuswap.

Read more: Water bombers attack fire north of Sicamous above Shuswap Lake

Read more: Wildfire burns near Okanagan Connector

Along with his appreciation for the way his family and friends handled themselves, Witt and the others in his group want to express their extreme gratitude for the kindness, love and support they received from so many following the fire.

Among them were Kayla Mueller from Alberta and her extended family who were in a cabin near the houseboat. They helped Witt and his family by giving them immediate shelter, providing clothing and then a ride convoy to the Sicamous Best Western.

Witt’s spouse Anu Belgaumkar interjects: “They were giving us the pants off their bodies and the shoes off their feet.”

Also very helpful in the hectic hours following the fire, they said, were Gail and others at the Sicamous Best Western, Jackie at InView Optical in the Mall at Piccadilly, staff at Shopper’s Drug Mart and Wearabouts in Salmon Arm, emergency program volunteers and, overall, the communities of both Sicamous and Salmon Arm.

The couple also enthused about the support they’ve received from the owners of Sicamous Houseboats, who were very accommodating and helped a lot in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Witt noted his hesitancy to name people who helped in case someone was missed.

“We’re thankful to everybody. The kindness has been overwhelming.” 


marthawickett@saobserver.net
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People watch around 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 as a houseboat on Mara Lake burns to the water line. (Contributed)

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