'It spread so fast:' Search begins for cause of fire that destroyed 11 townhouses

Residents living in a row of townhouses in Winona grabbed their kids, scooped up pets and fled their homes Monday morning, many with only the clothes on their backs, as a multiple-alarm fire engulfed the buildings around them.

There were no injuries, and all residents escaped from the homes

Hamilton fire department battle a fire to 11 townhouse units early this morning. (Jeremy Cohn/CBC)

Residents living in a row of townhouses in Winona grabbed their kids, scooped up pets and fled their homes Monday morning, many with only the clothes on their backs, as a multiple-alarm fire engulfed their houses and the buildings around them.

Eleven homes were damaged in the fire, most of which were completely destroyed.

"It was horrendous," said Maria Kealy, who lives around the corner from the blackened block of homes. "I can't believe that it spread so fast." 

The Hamilton Fire Department was called to the Hamilton suburb around 2:41 a.m. with reports of a structure fire at 49 Edenrock Dr., near Barton Street East and Fifty Road. 

David Cunliffe, chief of Hamilton Fire Department, said that the fire to a three-storey townhouse was "well involved" when firefighters arrived. 

"We had fire venting from the roof and out the rear of the building," he said.

The chief of Hamilton Fire Department says damages could be in the multiple millions of dollars. (Jeremy Cohn/CBC )

A steady wind helped fan the flames. The townhouses are in blocks of eight, and the fire started in an end unit, he said. 

Firefighters and Hamilton police went door-to-door, evacuating people from surrounding homes. Cunliffe said that they could hear smoke alarms going off in each home. 

There was "lots of activity, lots of noise, and I'm sure there were other residents that were helping those residents as well," he said.

Neighbours spoke of one woman who woke up to the flames and ran from house-to-house, hammering on front doors to wake people up.

The fire spread to a neighbouring block of eight townhomes, and nearly jumped to another before firefighters were able to stop it.

More than 60 firefighters were on scene, Cunliffe said. No one was injured.

There's been a structure or roof collapse in "pretty much all of the 11 units," he said, meaning damages could be in the "multiple millions of dollars." A displacement centre has been set up at a nearby hotel.

People CBC News spoke to outside of the hotel and at the scene said they were too distressed by what had happened to talk and that their focus was on caring for their families.

Community banded together

Neighbours said that the street filled up with people evacuating, many in their pyjamas, and some standing in their underwear because they just ran out only wearing what they had on.

Neighbours brought water out to those standing on the street, while others took care of the kids and gave them clothes.

"Everybody was just making sure they had what they needed because most of them ran out without anything," said Kealy, who offered up her basement.

All eleven of the heavily damaged townhouses had people living inside. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She described the neighbourhood as a tight-knit community where everyone looks out for one another.

The people who lost their homes seemed in shock, she said, but said they were also thankful no one was hurt.

"They were happy they were alive and had their kids out and their pets out. Material things can be replaced, lives can't."

Fire marshal investigating

The homes appear heavily scorched from the front, but it's only from behind that the extent of the damage becomes clear.

The buildings are all but hollowed out, leaving twisted wreckage that made it difficult for fire crews to reach all the hot spots that were still burning in the afternoon.

The extent of the damage to the homes can be seen from the back, where it's clear the buildings have all but collapsed. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Firefighters will be on scene for the majority of the day. Investigators with the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) have also been called in.

OFM supervisor Manny Garcia said he was "thankful" no one was injured in the fire, which is believes to have been sparked outside before moving into the roof of the home and spreading.

The investigator will be climbing into nearby homes that weren't burn up to check out their attics and inspect whether or not everything is up to code.

"We'll be checking to see how they were completed, whether or not they had the appropriate fire block and fire partitions installed," Garcia explained.

They'll also be considering the weather — specifically the wind — and the role it played.

"With that kind of wind it just moves the fire along," he said. "It spreads it dramatically."

Flames were like 'the end of the world'

Daisy Ding and Rain Chen's home is just a few metres from the ones that burned.

That small gap left their home virtually untouched, while the house across it is all but destroyed. 

Early this morning, Ding woke up to the sound of firefighters and climbing flames. Videos she recorded show a back fence burning up and a ball of flame shooting out the front of a nearby house.

"I opened the curtain and saw our neighbour's [house] is on fire. I could see the flames everywhere," she said.

A few minutes later, someone knocked on the door and said they had to leave right away. 

Chen said the flames looked like the "end of the world."

Daisy Ding and Rain Chen live at a house right in the gap next to the homes that burned. Their house was virtually untouched, but the one a few metres away was all but destroyed in the fire. (Dan Taekema)

Firefighters soaked the buildings next to their home so that it didn't catch on fire.

While they feel lucky to have escaped, Ding said she couldn't sleep all night and feels sorry for her neighbours.

"I'm feeling sad for the people that lost their house," she said, adding that she can't imagine what it's like to see their home be destroyed.

Ding and Chen said that based on what happened, they worry about the fire and its ability to spread between townhomes. 

"That concern has definitely been raised among us," said Ding. "So maybe we'll move to a single home in the future."


Dan Taekema


Dan Taekema is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. He has worked with CBC News in Hamilton, Windsor and Toronto and for newspapers around southern Ontario. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.

With files from Samantha Craggs