Saskatoon man recounts family's harrowing escape from B.C. houseboat fire

A Saskatchewan family's vacation turned into a daring escape after a boat fire in British Columbia. 

Chris Murphy said the four families were on the boat in a bubble to have a vacation away

Chris Murphy's Saskatoon family was one of four that escaped a houseboat that caught fire in the early morning hours of Aug. 4 on Mara Lake in B.C. (Lara Murphy)

A Saskatchewan family's vacation turned into a daring escape after a boat fire in British Columbia. 

Chris Murphy, his wife Lori and their four kids were among four families who set out on the August long weekend to have a COVID-19-friendly week away from the public on a houseboat in the Okanagan. There were 21 of them in all, including 12 children.

Murphy said all of the families had been living in COVID bubbles in Saskatoon before travelling to B.C. and renting the watercraft from Sicamous Houseboats. They boarded the houseboat on Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. PT and enjoyed the rest of the day before mooring for the night on the shore of Mara Lake.

"It was actually a really nice evening," Murphy said. "Everyone was kind of in bed by about midnight."

Chris Murphy swims with three of his four children the day before the houseboat they rented in B.C. caught fire. (Submitted by Chris Murphy)

Murphy said family friend John Witt was acting as the captain for the trip. At about 2 a.m. PT on Aug. 4, as many slept, Witt was doing a round to check everything on the boat and noticed the generator that ran the air conditioning was turned off. 

Witt went into the back area to check on the generator and saw flames. He screamed fire, waking up everyone on the boat. 

"We ran out of there," Murphy said. "By the time we got off, this thing was like in full flames. Like within a minute."

WATCH: Chris Murphy describes his family's escape from the burning houseboat

Sask. family escapes houseboat fire in B.C.

2 years ago
Duration 4:10
Chris Murphy describes his family's escape from a houseboat that caught fire on a lake in B.C.

Murphy said no smoke detectors went off and it was chaos finding everyone in the dark. 

He saw his wife with their baby, then his two next-youngest, but there was a brief moment of uncertainty about their 10-year-old. They found her on the beach safe.

"I knew that the six of us were off but I really had no idea about the other 15." 

We had to get away from the boat because it was going to blow up.- Chris Murphy

To add to the panic, the families knew there were about 600 gallons of gasoline and two propane tanks on the boat. 

"We had to get away from the boat because it was going to blow up," Murphy said. 

The families started moving up a rocky beach in bare feet, with the adults carrying the children they could. Murphy's six-year-old son had to walk on the rocky shore with no shoes.

"We had to get out of there. The boat can explode. Keep moving."

A promotional photo of a Genesis 75 houseboat, the model Murphy and his family were on when it caught fire. (Sicamous Houseboats website)

Murphy said they got a bit of hope when they saw a cabin about 700 feet away.

It turned out a few families were maintaining their own COVID bubble in the cabin. Murphy's group quickly ran toward it and a person came out to shine a flashlight for them to see.

"They're just amazing. They took us in and gave us clothes off their back," Murphy said. 

There are people out there who just really care about the human condition and and are willing to do things to help other people.- Chris Murphy

A few hours later, with the boat still on the water, the families in the cabin drove Murphy's group to a nearby motel.

The group was able to sort out what to do next at the motel. Murphy said emergency services and the houseboat dealership covered two nights at the motel and vehicles for the families to get home. 

These 11 children and teens, seen with their grandparents who were not on the boat, were among the 21 people on the houseboat that caught fire. Some faces have been blurred at the request of the parents. (Submitted by Chris Murphy)

Murphy said the owner at the car rental business wanted to do something to help and gave the families a prepaid VISA card to cover some expenses on the trip back home to Saskatoon. 

"I actually became emotional," Murphy said.

"It's kind of easy to become removed, maybe a little bit jaded, and not realize that there are people out there who just really care about the human condition and and are willing to do things to help other people."

Murphy said John Witt has filed a complaint with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) about the incident.

The TSB told CBC it isn't required to investigate this fire because houseboats are deemed a "pleasure craft." However, it can choose to investigate "if there is a commercial component to an occurrence involving a pleasure craft." The TSB said it is gathering information and hasn't launched an investigation. 

The TSB noted that it receives thousands of reports every year about problems or accidents related to marine, pipeline, rail and air modes of transportation and "practical considerations dictate that only a small proportion of these occurrences can be fully investigated."

Murphy said he thinks some of the group may have lasting psychological effects from the incident, but he's glad everyone is OK, even if they lost IDs, shoes, car keys or money. 

"If John would not have looked … if he would have seen that fire two minutes later, no one would have seen it. We had a two-minute window. Otherwise we all would've been on there like there just would have been no getting out of it," he said.

"There's so many things that had to be just done precisely, correctly for us … for anyone to get off that boat."

Asked for information on the cause of the fire, the B.C. Fire Commissioner said it could not comment during the investigation, but commended the Sicamous Fire Department for its response to the situation.

CBC Saskatchewan has contacted Sicamous Houseboats for comment.

Chris Murphy and his four children hike through a nearby trail the day before their houseboat caught fire in B.C. (Submitted by Chris Murphy)

With files from Heather Morrison


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?