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Music teacher looking for new home after fire destroys top-floor suite

Jamie Kozak, who lost a cat and pet rats in the blaze, was at band practice in Esquimalt when the fire broke out
Selena Kozak, left, with her daughter Jaime Kozak and cat Bingus. Jaime and Bingus were left homeless by a fire Sunday in James Bay. Story, A3 ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

When Selena Kozak drove by the charred remains of the James Bay attic where her daughter had been living, she was overwhelmed. Kozak came to Victoria from Vancouver on Monday to help Jaime Kozak, 26, find a new rental suite, but wasn’t prepared for how jarring it would be to see the burned home.

“If she was in there at the time of the fire I don’t know if she’d be here today,” Kozak said. “I have a hard time thinking about that. I can’t think about that.”

The three-storey house at 268 Ontario St. with three rental suites is boarded up and fenced off after Sunday evening’s blaze, which was sparked by a barbecue that ignited the 1908 home’s wood siding.

The house, once with about nine tenants, is uninhabitable and fire adjusters and structural engineers are expected to determine whether it can be restored or must be torn down.

Jaime Kozak, who lived alone in a suite in the attic, was at band practice in Esquimalt when the blaze broke out. She arrived shortly after being phoned by another tenant and told her animals were trapped inside her locked suite.

The music teacher, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in classical music performance specializing in singing, considered the large suite ideal to store her many instruments, play music and house not only two cats but five pet rats kept in a cage. “There was smoke pouring out of my window and I was just watching for an hour and a half screaming and sitting there,” said Kozak. “I felt really really powerless watching, just knowing they were dying. It was too hard for even the firemen to go in to rescue them.”

After midnight, firefighters — who saved Kozak’s cat Bingus as well as another cat — confirmed Kozak’s other cat, Angus, and five pet rats had succumbed to the smoke. She was given the deceased cat’s collar as a keepsake from a firefighter.

While firefighters were able to retrieve an acoustic and an electric guitar, which were heavily smoke-damaged, Kozak lost her favourite custom Japanese gold telecaster guitar as well as her Roland keyboard, art and sketches. She “deeply regrets” not buying renter’s insurance.

“No one thinks their house is going to burn down and I was in the top suite so I wasn’t worried about flooding, but everyone needs renter’s insurance because your house might burn down,” she said.

Kozak, along with all of the other displaced tenants, is looking for housing. She’s taken a week off teaching, which she usually does six days a week.

“It’s just hard for me that I can’t work right now because all my belongings smell like smoke and I keep crying throughout the day so I can’t be around kids when I’m this sensitive.”

Kozak and her mother said thus far, landlords have been sympathetic to her plight. She’s looking for a pet-friendly rental in Greater Victoria at a maximum of $2,000 a month.

Kozak and other tenants were given emergency housing at the Chateau Victoria Hotel, a high-end hotel in downtown Victoria, until today. After that, the two will be camping, with friends, and essentially couch-surfing.

She said the hotel management and staff have been exceedingly kind and accommodating and staying in a nice hotel has helped with her recovery.

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The City of Victoria offers these barbecue safety tips:

• Follow manufacturer’s directions for your barbecue.

• If it’s a gas unit, regularly check for leaks.

• Make sure the barbecue is a safe ­distance away from structures and stored materials.

• Do not leave cooking unattended.

• Have a fire extinguisher handy.

• Clean your grill after each use.

• When finished, close the tank valve and then the burner so that propane is not left in the hose.

• Allow the barbecue to cool completely before replacing the cover and returning to storage.

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