Nelson Jenking Jr. awoke in the wee hours of May 13, 2020, to heavy smoke from a fully-involved fire in a row of four townhouses in Mattawa, Ont., and his life and those of his partner Meghan and their six-year-old daughter Emma have been in turmoil ever since.
Jenking ensured the members of his family — who occupied one of the end units — was out of harm's way and then instinctively drove to the Papineau–Cameron Fire Department, put on his gear, and joined his fellow volunteer firefighters from Mattawa at the Mattawan Apartments to knock down the blaze.
See related story: Fire victim geared up and fought Mattawa blaze
Mattawa firefighter Dan O'Grady told BayToday in May 2020, "When he came back, he started fighting the fire on his neighbour's apartment. He left his [own home] alone, a selfless act. I want to get that out there because not many people would do that."
Although the psychological trauma remains from the blaze that rendered all four affordable housing units uninhabitable and the resulting property losses have set them back financially, Jenking is happy to say they are safe and they are home again.
It was almost an entire pandemic ago the fire ripped through the Nipissing District Housing Corporation (NDHC) units in Mattawa on a freezing spring morning.
The OPP later arrested and charged a Mattawa man in connection with the fire after the investigation revealed the blaze started in the unit adjacent to Jenking and his family as the result of a drug manufacturing mishap. Police said the investigation indicated the flames originated in the oven and spread to the other units around 4 a.m. while the occupants, including six children, were sleeping. The man charged following the investigation into the fire suffered life-altering burns. The charges remain in the court system.
The town rallied around the victims of the fire and several fundraising and charitable campaigns were mounted for the displaced residents, who began the long process of starting over.
Their unit suffered extensive smoke, water, and fire damage so Jenking and family lived for a time in a Mattawa motel, hoping to find suitable housing nearby so Emma could continue with her schooling in town without interruption. A lack of housing inventory in Mattawa, exacerbated by the destruction of the four units by the explosion and fire made that challenging.
Due to the circumstances of their displacement, the family was offered emergency housing in North Bay but they instead accepted a placement in affordable housing in Kirkland Lake and kept their names on the waiting list in Mattawa. When the renovation of their former home was complete, Jenking says NDHC called and offered the family the end unit and they are back and happily living in Mattawa. The units have been rebuilt from the basement up.
Jenking says they accepted the offer to return to Mattawa without hesitation. Prior to the move back, Jenking also shared he was anxious to get back to the familiarity of the volunteer fire department in Papineau–Cameron, which recognized his actions the night of the fire.
"They were my social network that helped us get through this," he said. "They are like family."