Police say the extensive damage from a large fire in a southwest Ottawa neighbourhood early Tuesday could make it difficult to find the cause.

The arson unit is investigating the blaze, which destroyed three cars and badly damaged a rowhouse unit on Pathway Private, near Greenbank and Baseline roads, at about 12:20 a.m.

The blaze caused an estimated $250,000 in damage.

mi-ott-james-paul-300

James Paul, standing near his burned-out car, said he was glad everyone escaped unharmed. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

"Cars don't normally burst into flames, but they certainly can," said Sgt. David Christie of the arson unit. "There can be electrical problems or engine problems within the vehicle that can cause it to set on fire, so that's definitely a possibility."

Police think the fire started in the middle of the three cars.

"I know with any neighbourhood, if they have a fire that people think may have been deliberately set, it causes people to become concerned. And that also causes people ... to come up with different ideas and theories," Christie said. 

"But really, until we're able to hopefully determine what the exact cause is, that's just conjecture right now and people need to keep in mind that ... this could just turn out to be an accidental fire."

Firefighters were called out to 37 Pathway Pvt., where a string of car ports next to a row house was engulfed in flames.

The fire managed to spread from the car ports into one of the row house units, and was finally brought under control just before 2 a.m.

Neighbours saw fireball

Mary Francis Brown, who lives further down the row house, said she was woken up by the sounds of her daughter screaming just after midnight.

"She was screaming and I ran downstairs, and I ran outside and I looked down the street and there was a fireball at the end of the units," Brown said.

si-ott-pathway-firenight-85

A neighbour took this photo of a fire on Pathway Private early Tuesday morning. The fire destroyed three cars and has temporarily displaced two people living next door. (Photo courtesy of Twitter user @bschwarz121)

"I thought it was a house, but after a while I realized it was a car that was there and it was on fire. It [the fire] was going up the side of the house. And then we were running down the street and all of a sudden we heard a big pop, and the fireball went right up over the trees, and then the whole side of the building went up in flames," she said.

"There was nothing we could do about it, but the fire department was here pretty fast. … It was pretty spectacular."

Cathy Paul told CBC News her son's car was the middle car destroyed in the fire.

"My son had just come home and had gone to bed and boom, this happened," Paul said. "Thank God he's got his work truck because otherwise, he wouldn't get around."

"This used to be one of the best neighbourhoods of the whole west end. … I'm looking to get out,"

1 cat, 2 birds rescued by firefighters

Everyone got out safely, but one cat and two birds had to be rescued by firefighters.

Two people have been temporarily displaced from their home on Pathway Private.

Damage to the cars, the building and its contents was initially estimated at about $150,000, but was later updated to $250,000.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Ottawa police arson unit at 613-236-1222, ext. 4372, or Crime Stoppers at 613-233-8477.

37 pathway private, ottawa