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Fire burned through memories, pieces of history, says owner of Nova Scotia daycare

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The owner of a Nova Scotia daycare destroyed as recent wildfires ripped through the province says the flames consumed both her livelihood and a physical piece of twentieth-century history.

Among the many memories and treasured family heirlooms lost in the fire that raced through suburban Halifax was a piece of the Berlin Wall belonging to Terri and Lutz Kottwitz. Most of the couple’s belongings were destroyed when wildfires levelled their home in Hammonds Plains, as well as the neighbouring ForestKids Early Learning Centre daycare owned by Terri Kottwitz.

“Someone said that it’s not going to look like the rest of the ashes so maybe we’ll still find it,” Terri Kottwitz said of the chunk of wall in a telephone interview. “But that’s an awful lot of looking through those ashes to find a little piece of the wall.”

The blaze also consumed other, more personal mementoes of her husband’s homeland of Germany: crystal that belonged to his mother, family heirlooms saved from the east-west conflict that once physically divided the country, items from the couple’s childhoods and souvenirs of their own children’s early years.

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The blaze broke out more than a week ago in suburban Halifax, forcing 16,000 people from their homes and destroying some 200 structures, including 151 homes.

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When the fire broke out on May 28, Terri Kottwitz was at her local grocery store about four kilometres from her home when she saw smoke unfurling from somewhere in her neighbourhood.

She promptly called her husband, who stepped outside to take a look and initially thought the smoke was coming from a house fire. But the true scope of the blaze soon became clear.

At the store, she met a woman who reported fleeing her subdivision without the chance to collect clothes for her child.

Kottwitz offered the woman room at her daycare centre, thinking evacuees could use the space. The daycare typically hosted 82 children between the ages of three months and 12 years, but had closed for the day that Sunday afternoon.

But in the hour it took to return home, Kottwitz learned she, too, was being ordered to evacuate.

“That fire moved rapidly … fast. It was so windy that day,” she said.

She grabbed her passport, birth certificate and a few important documents and ran to her car with her four dogs: an Irish setter, Oliver, an Irish setter and golden retriever mix, Bella, and two golden retriever puppies, Tucker and Forester.

“I threw them in that car so fast. And they’re heavy dogs,” she said. “You get three in, one wants to get out, right? So by the time you get all four in, you’re pretty shaken.”

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The Kottwitzes are currently staying in an apartment they can access until Friday and are planning to move to a hotel until they can return to a smaller house closer to their property. Terri Kottwitz marvelled at the seeming randomness of the destruction, which was widespread but left some key buildings intact.

“(The fire) took our (main) house but didn’t take our little house with my husband’s big garage,” she said. “It took the (daycare) centre but it didn’t take the other two buildings that were right beside the centre. It took the outhouse and the surrounding woods.”

The kids’ hammocks, sleeping bags and other belongings also survived the wildfire. The family’s ducklings, chickens and bees were also spared.

Kottwitz said she learned what was saved and what was burned from others posting on social media.

The Nova Scotia government arranged for residents to board buses so they could see their properties, but Kottwitz opted not to make the trip.

“We’ll start building a new daycare centre as soon as possible, although we have a temporary location right now.”

While happy new memories lie ahead, Kottwitz said the things that made past ones precious are lost for good.

“I had music boxes that my children gave to me when they were little. They’re all gone,” she said. “The snow globes aren’t replaceable. Some of the (things) children at the made are not replaceable.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

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