A mum relived the moment she and her daughter fled their burning Fort William home, as tenants’ rights protesters gathered outside Highland Council headquarters in Inverness.
Christine Stoddart woke at 5.30am on June 14 to find black smoke rising through the floor of her council house on Banff Crescent.
Two months later and Christine and her 18-year-old daughter are still living in temporary homeless accommodation with no idea when they will be able to return home.
On Thursday afternoon, Christine along with campaigners from Living Rent, marched on Highland Council offices demanding the local authority address fears surrounding outdated fuse boxes in their social housing.
Living Rent claim that four similar fires have broken out at Highland Council homes in recent years – a claim refuted by the local authority.
‘It terrifies me’
Reliving the moment she noticed her home was on fire, Christine said: “It was 5.30 in the morning and I was up and heard a noise.
“I looked over and saw this black smoke coming through the bathroom floor.
“My neighbour lifted her blinds and saw all the smoke coming out from where the fuse box is and she cam running over.
“Me and my daughter got out of the house – but if hadn’t of been for her and me being up at that time I dread to think what would have happened.”
She added: “It terrifies me. I keep thinking, ‘see if my daughter had died’ or anything, I know it sounds a bit dramatic but it’s so scary.”
Christine’s 18-year-old daughter had been asleep upstairs when the fuse box burst into flames near the front door.
The smoke alarms eventually went off in the house but not until after Christine had seen the smoke.
“My daughter was asleep, but thank God I just got up. I don’t know why but I just got up.
“I had to shout my daughter to get up and out the house.
“But imagine that was a person with young children or an old person.
“I’m lucky because my neighbour had seen the smoke and the flames coming out the door – but if I hadn’t of gotten up God knows what would have happened.”
The mum claims the council have failed to communicate with her properly since the fire.
Christine said she and her daughter were forced to stay with family for three weeks before Highland Council finally put them up in temporary accommodation.
Since then she has been left in the dark over the home she has lived in since 2003 and where all her belongings still are.
“The morning of the fire two council officers came up and said I wouldn’t be able to stay there because there was no electricity,” said Christine.
“And that was it.
“I’d been emailing back and forward to see what was happening and no-one was up to inspect the house or anything.
“They still hadn’t until I got Living Rent involved. That was (after) a few weeks, maybe a month.”
Workmen are now cleaning up the house but Christine hasn’t been given any idea of when she can move back into her home.
“We just want to be back in our own house, to be back home, and be told what’s happening.
“The workmen are in and they’re fine – it’s about the council not telling us what’s going on.
“If they would tell us what’s going on it wouldn’t be so bad. But there’s been no communication.”
Despite the damage to the property, Christine’s possessions have been left in the house which she has no access to.
“They should have put my stuff into storage,” said Christine.
“It (the house) has to get rewired and everything, the floor has to get lifted up.
“They’ve changed the locks on the doors.”
‘Gambling with people’s lives’
At the protest on Thursday afternoon, where Living Rent delivered a letter to the local authority, the tenants’ union demanded an investigation into the fuse boxes installed in Highland Council houses.
John Woods, a Living Rent member in the Highlands, said: “The Highland Council are gambling with people’s lives by neglecting to upgrade old fuse boxes in their homes.
“Living Rent have heard reports of four separate house fires in recent years in council homes in Fort William.”
A spokesman for the local authority confirmed the fuse box fire on June 14 but said the council were unaware of any other incidents of fuse box fires in Fort William or the Highlands.
“We are unable to comment on individual cases, but can confirm that we have standard procedures for dealing with situations where tenants are unable to occupy their homes for a temporary period,” said the council spokesman.
“We believe that those procedures, which include communication with affected households, were followed in this case.
“The council is currently working on the delivery of enhanced fire detection systems where these are needed in our homes to meet improved national standards, and we are due to complete all the required work by the national deadline of February 2022.
“The council takes fire safety extremely seriously and we work in conjunction with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service who offer free fire safety advice.
“We would urge any Highland Council tenant who has a concern about fire safety in their home to contact us so that we can help.”