Updated August 1, 2018
Kell Sandie and Jan Mallender purchased an old cottage property with a very Canadian dream. They’d sell their family house in the city to build a new home on a cottage property up north and live there after retirement.
That was over eight years ago, and since then, the couple, along with family and friends, began building what would become their riverside retirement oasis on the French River in Ontario, south of Sudbury.
Over those years, the pair of teachers from London, Ont., poured their hearts and souls into the property.
“We literally built this whole place with the help of friends and family. We didn’t hire a single person,” Jan says.
The property they purchased came with an old log cabin by the water. They began building their future home right behind it. Over time, it was all hands on deck and friends and family aided however they could each summer. Having Kell as a certified general carpenter surely helped.
It was a massive undertaking, but the couple’s dedication was unwavering. Since they retired in June, they’ve been enjoying life in cottage country full-time. This transition meant not just having a cottage or vacation property, but a new home and new way of living.
Things started to change in mid-July, as they got word of an out of control fire burning just south of them, the fire known as Parry Sound 33.
The couple kept track of the fire’s progress, but it continually got closer and closer. On July 23rd, a mandatory evacuation was posted for residents on the French River who had boat access only. Kell and Jan’s home is the first road-access property in the area after the boat access properties, so they only received a recommended evacuation notice.
“It was hard to get information exactly right. We were checking in with the ministry every day and drawing maps to keep track of the fire as best we could,” Kell says.
During this time, the couple did not stay overnight at the cottage, but drove in to check on the property during the day.
“Initially, we thought the fire would be plenty far from us, but getting up to the property and looking south there was a red hue to the sky. The smoke smelled extremely strong and we just knew it was getting closer,” Jan says.
“With the smoke getting closer and thicker, you couldn’t help but be anxious. It was awful,” Kell says.
When the couple showed up at the property this past Monday, they found the MNRF installing pumps and sprinklers on the roof to help prevent the fire from damaging their home.
“It was really eerie, seeing them work. What they were setting up was incredible, but they’re all doing this because the fire is getting that much closer,” Kell says.
The pair was working on finishing their kitchen at the time and Kell went back to work while he could.
“It’s almost funny to think about, but on those last few days I continued installing cabinets,” Kell says. “It was the only thing I could do to distract myself from the monster growing in the background.”
They asked a volunteer firefighter installing sprinklers about whether or not they should evacuate, but they were told it was still only recommended for their area. When the two finally head out, bags packed, they met same firefighter up the road and they were told an evacuation notice had been issued.
Kell and Jan began driving to look for a trailer which had been generously supplied to them by a friend.
“Everyone has been incredibly generous to us. There was no shortage of people offering us a place to stay,” Jan says. “We didn’t want to leave the area, we wanted to stay close to our home.”
Their concern extends beyond just their own property, but also to their neighbours. Many full-time residents live in the area, it’s not exclusively cottage properties. But now, the fire rages a mere two kilometres south of their home while they sit and wait for news.