Tehkummah man credits dog’s alert with saving his life in major house fire

Mike Deforge was sound asleep at the back of his home when a fire broke out on his front porch. His four-year-old dog Chaos, a rescue, noticed the fire before the smoke spread through the home. He jumped on Mr. Deforge to wake him up, long before the smoke detectors began to ring their alarms. That extra few moments made all the difference—by the time Mr. Deforge, his cat and Chaos jumped to safety through a back window, smoke had completely filled the house. photo by Warren Schlote

Woken by canine friend at 1:45 am

TEHKUMMAH – Mike Deforge lost his Tehkummah home of 15 years to a serious electrical fire in the early morning hours last Tuesday, February 23, but he managed to make a timely escape thanks to his dog Chaos, who woke him up before his smoke detectors activated and quite possibly saved his life.

“It’s nice to have an animal that can defend you against stuff like this,” he told The Expositor, recounting his experiences.

Jeff Wilson, fire chief of Tehkummah Fire Department, said he got a call around 1:50 am and the first firefighters arrived on scene at Highway 542 and Smeltzer’s Road a little after 2 am. When crews first arrived, the front area of the house, including the porch, was fully engulfed. The fire stretched up into the roof toward the main portion of the house. They managed to prevent the entire structure from catching fire over several hours of work.

Following discussions with the Ontario Fire Marshall, Mr. Wilson said he and the provincial body believe that this was an electrical fire, likely starting around some tools Mr. Deforge had in the front porch area because he was doing some renovation work.

They believe a spark ignited some sawdust and the fire quickly spread to the home’s siding, flooring and frame—all made of 120-year-old cedar.

Mr. Deforge was asleep in the back of the house when the fire began to spread from the porch into the house. The first flames were enough to alert Chaos, a four-year-old Boxer he rescued three years ago from a woman in the city who was dying and could not keep him. 

“The smoke detector is in the middle of the house and the smoke had filled the first half, but I was in the back and there was no smoke where I was,” the 53-year-old said. “My dog woke me up when the smoke came into the house. He ran in and jumped on top of me a few times.”

Mr. Deforge got out of bed and walked into the main portion of the house. Smoke was just starting to fill the house and he saw a reddish glow from the front porch.

The back door was sealed for the winter and the main door was behind a wall of flame, so Mr. Deforge opened a back window of the house as his last option. He tossed his cat and his dog to safety through the window as the smoke began to fully consume the house.

It was only after Mr. Deforge left the building that he finally heard the smoke detector activate.

“When I went back in to take a look after it was over, the detector had melted right off the wall,” said Mr. Deforge.

Animals have helped him out at several points in his life, he recalled, such as stopping his children from wandering onto the road. He has had dogs all through his life.

“If anyone’s considering getting a dog, I really think they should look at getting a rescue. There’s nothing wrong with them,” he said, patting the pup who had just saved his life.

The fire burned hot—some of the tools on the porch at the fire’s epicentre, including an air compressor, had parts that completely melted.

Crews from Assiginack Fire Department and Central Manitoulin Fire Department responded to the fire call. Highway 542 was shut down between Highway 6 and Highway 542A for several hours Tuesday morning.

Tehkummah sent four units with 11 firefighters, Assiginack sent two units and four firefighters and Central Manitoulin sent a tanker for extra water support with one firefighter.

Mr. Deforge praised the rapid response of the volunteer fire crews, who arrived on the scene within 20 minutes of his call. Incidentally, he went to school with Mr. Wilson in Mindemoya many years ago and was a volunteer firefighter in his 20s.

“I could not believe the response time our municipality had,” he said. “Our volunteer firemen are the best.”

The fire was somewhat problematic because of the dormers at the roof level. Flames quickly reached the dormer at the front of the house and the fire spread to the rear dormer, where crews had to concentrate much of their efforts.

“I’d say we spent the last two hours fighting with the fire in just that one spot. We finally had to get on the roof, bust the window out of the dormer, pull the drywall down and get the soffit off the dormer and get right in there to finally get it put out. It was a challenge,” Mr. Wilson said.

He dismissed the Assiginack crews at about 6:15 am because the fire was largely contained.

“We asked Central to hang around a bit longer with more water. Central went home shortly after 7 am and we left around 8 o’clock,” Mr. Wilson said. He returned several times during the following day to make sure there were no hot spots remaining, and had to throw on some snow on one such check.

He described the outcome as a total loss, despite the crews’ best efforts.

“They did their darnedest to protect my music room with lots of water around it,” said Mr. Deforge, “but the room got heavily damaged. All my instruments got frozen and split.”

Fortunately, Mr. Deforge had insurance on the house.

The Tehkummah community joined forces shortly thereafter to support Mr. Deforge. His sister-in-law Barb Deforge, who works as Tehkummah’s deputy treasurer, has taken a lead on arranging support and arranged space at the fire hall to store donations.

“She also said (South Shore Volunteer Firefighters’ Association) are going to check their yard sale stuff, because sometimes people donate furniture, and see if there was anything in there that was nice that they could give to him as well,” Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Deforge has been staying in his garage since the fire. He declined a motel room because he was worried it would not accommodate his cat and dog, and he also wanted to keep an eye on the property. Several vehicles stopped to investigate the property during this reporter’s 20-minute visit and Mr. Deforge said he has had to ask a few people to leave his land.

He plans to rebuild in place. Mr. Deforge expressed his gratitude to have survived the ordeal, with the help of Chaos and the fire departments, and said he would be okay.

“Thank you to Central and Assiginack for helping, and a big shoutout to my crew for the good turnout and putting in the hard work to get the job done,” Mr. Wilson said.

Anyone who wishes to support Mr. Deforge as he prepares to rebuild his home should contact Barb Deforge at the Tehkummah municipal office; 705-859-3293.