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Family among dozens displaced for months by Wheatley, Ont., blast will spend Christmas in a rental


The Charbonneau family as well as dozens of other residents of Wheatley have been out of their homes since an explosion rocked the southwestern Ontario community on Aug. 26. Now, Stephanie, Jeremy and their young kids will celebrate Christmas in a rental home but remain grateful for the support.

Stephanie and Jeremy Charbonneau and their daughters Elaine, left, and Mabel will soon celebrate their first Christmas since the Aug. 26 explosion in Wheatley, Ont., forced them and dozens of other people out of their homes.(Dale Molnar/CBC)

A family from Wheatley, where an explosion in the summer has displaced dozens of members of the southwestern Ontario community for months, is preparing to celebrate Christmas in a rental home in nearby Leamington.

But it won't be the same.

"Some days you sit here and we think like how grateful we are to have what we have," said Stephanie Charbonneau, a teacher. "Other days you just sit and really miss the life that you built."

It's been nearly four months since the explosion, which is still under investigation but is believed to be related to apparent gas leaks, destroyed two buildings and injured several people. In November, the province announced Wheatley and its residents would receive an additional $3.8 million in funding, with the money for the families meant to go towards meeting the costs associated with being out of their homes.

Payments were expected to start flowing from the province in November, and the deadline to apply for funding is Jan. 31.

Some 155 people remain displaced from their homes.

Stephanie Charbonneau, her husband Jeremy, a computer application engineer, and their daughters, Mabel, 4, and, Elaine, 2, will be without the cherished Christmas ornaments and decorations that usually adorn their Foster Street home this time of year.

Their rental is smaller than their century home in Wheatley, where they've lived for six years, but it's reasonably comfortable, except for the spotty internet Jeremy needs for work, and they can stay there indefinitely.

It's the third place they've lived since people were forced from their homes Aug. 26, unable to return because the source of the gas leaks still haven't been identified.

Last week, Chatham-Kent said demolition of the evacuated site was nearing completion, and an excavation and analysis of the area was set to start.

"The analysis is a key factor in determining how the gas is reaching the surface and gives us important Information we can use for remediation," said Thomas Kelly, general manager of Infrastructure and Engineering Services for the municipality.

The Charbonneaus have rented this farmhouse in Leamington from a former colleague of Stephanie's.(Dale Molnar/CBC)

Due to the "elevated risk' that comes with excavating the sites, planned property visits by Wheatley home and business owners have been put on pause for the time being.

"We will resume allowing residents to return as soon it is safe to do so, but the current work Is critical to long-term resolution of the problem. If there are any gaps in the work plan, temporary access will be restarted," said Kelly.

Jeremy said it "definitely took a long time to get settled, but we're finally at least in a bit more of the Christmas spirit."

"We were able to get a lot of donations and things to make it feel festive in here, really, so it feels more homey for the girls."

Jeremy Charbonneau plays with his daughters at their home in Wheatley last Christmas.(Stephanie Charbonneau)

Community members in Wheatley have come together to donate Christmas ornaments, decorations and toys for the children.

"The Wheatley community did an amazing job of fundraising, and then they put it all up at the resource centre and we went in and they just gave so much to us and without a second thought, just 'you need it here," Stephanie said.

Stephanie said her family will miss the traditional Christmas Eve get-together with the neighbours, the walks looking at Christmas lights, and the hide-and-seek game with gnomes, and she said it's hard not knowing what the future will bring.

The Charbonneau family is still not able to live in their Wheatley home, nearly four months after the explosion.(Dale Molnar/CBC)

"The municipality hasn't allowed us to winterize our home, and we have boiler heat and rads with water in them, so if we are unable to winterize our home, that could be an issue as it gets colder," said Charbonneau.

"The air conditioners are still in the windows," said Jeremy.

The Charbonneaus say they feel their home is still OK, except for rotting food in the fridge and insects that have moved in.

Stephanie Charbonneau holds one of the personalized Christmas ornaments they were able to buy this year. They went to a Christmas tree farm to buy the tree. Most of the ornaments on it were donated through the Wheatley Community Chest.(Dale Molnar/CBC)

"There's a part of me that feels a little bit like they're just going to surprise us one day and say, 'Guess what? We fixed it. You can go back in.' That hope is more detrimental than if they were just to be honest with us and tell us what's really going on."

Jeremy said they definitely want to go back to the home they love, a two-storey brick house that is over a century old.

The Charbonneaus plan to spend Christmas at their rental home, hosting parents from out of town.

They did manage to buy some Christmas lights, a real tree and some ornaments.

One personalized ornament has their name on one side and the date of the explosion on the other — a day they wish could have been different, but one that makes this a holiday to remember.


Dale Molnar is an award-winning video journalist at CBC Windsor. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor and has worked in television, radio and print.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca


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