PUBNICO, N.S. - Police used a cadaver dog to search the rubble of a two-storey home in southwestern Nova Scotia Monday, a day after a fatal house fire killed four people including at least two small children.
An RCMP dog handler spent about 20 minutes combing the jagged, charred debris of the Pubnico, N.S., house with the assistance of what he called a "human remains detection dog."
At least three times, the black German shepherd stopped and sat motionless while his handler placed orange flag tape at the spot. Four fire trucks were later lined up along the road to stymie onlookers, and a blue tarp placed over much of the rubble.
Police are not releasing the identities or number of the dead, but family members have said four people died in the early Sunday fire.
The remains of at least some victims were "still there" in the house, West Pubnico Fire Chief Gordon Amiro said Monday.
He said flames had already engulfed the home when firefighters arrived Sunday and firefighters did not attempt to enter it.
"There was no way of going into the house. It was just a matter of putting the fire out," Amiro said, noting that flames shooting out of the windows and roof. "There was nothing we could do in that situation."
An ambulance was first to arrive on the scene of the fire, he said, and it took two adult survivors to hospital.
Ervin Olsen, great-grandfather of two children who died in the Pubnico, N.S., blaze, said the father of at least one of the children remains in hospital.
"We're at the hospital now and ... the father is struggling to stay alive," he said.
Residents of the area identified the father as a lobster fisherman.
The Canadian Red Cross has said the father's common-law wife is with him in hospital, that their blended family lived in the home and that an infant boy was among those killed in the early Sunday blaze.
RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said the fire marshal, the medical examiner's office and the force's major crimes unit are all involved in the investigation. But she said that doesn't necessarily mean police suspect foul play.
"That doesn't really speak to the type of incident or mean that it is suspicious," she said Monday. "It is a complex investigation. We do have those resources, so we are making use of them."
On Monday, a light snowfall covered the black heap of twisted framing and ashes with snow.
Yellow police tape surrounded the scorched ruins of the roadside home, reduced to a pile of blackened beams after an excavator ripped down walls to allow fire officials to get inside.
Amiro said it could be days before the cause of the fire is known.
"It will probably be the end of the week before we know," he said. "There was a wood stove in the structure. We presume that's probably what happened, but we don't know yet."
While it could be days before investigators pinpoint what sparked the blaze, details about the immediate response to the fire are emerging.
Firefighters arrived at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, about 12 minutes after the call came in, Amiro said.
In all, five fire departments and about 40 firefighters responded to the deadly blaze. Firefighters stayed on the scene for nearly 18 hours — returning late Sunday night to respond to a flare-up, Amiro said.
"It was the longest time I've spent at a house fire in my life," said the veteran firefighter, who has volunteered at the local department for 40 years. "It took us two and a half hours to get the flames down and then we had to put out the hot spots."
The small fishing community in the province's southern tip appears to have banded together to buoy volunteers and officials investigating the fire.
"It's a small community, we're only about 2,000 people in this area," Amiro said. "We had people coming with food. One came with a whole bunch of subs, another one came with sweets, two local restaurants came with sandwiches and tea and coffee and another one came with pizzas."
Neighbouring fire departments have offered to come and stand in for local volunteers while they do a debriefing, in case another emergency should arise, he said.
A woman who runs a seasonal business next to the home says the community is reeling from the tragedy.
"It's just devastating," said the woman, who didn't want her name used. "Everybody cried. It's the worst nightmare. We try to put ourselves in that situation and we just can't."
The woman, who lives about 10 minutes away from the home, said she didn't know the family personally but would see young children playing outside with their pet cat and dog in the summer months. She says the community of Pubnico Head is close and will feel the losses deeply.
"When you see someone, you know who they are. So when it comes to things like this, people go up in arms to protect those who have been injured," she said.
— With files from Alison Auld and Brett Bundale in Halifax