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Ordeal over burned home leaves man fuming

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Doug Bergman and the Beausejour landmark he was 90 per cent finished restoring before it burned down July 20. The house is a complete loss. BILL REDEKOP/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Aug 7,2014

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Doug Bergman and the Beausejour landmark he was 90 per cent finished restoring before it burned down July 20. The house is a complete loss. BILL REDEKOP/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Aug 7,2014

BEAUSEJOUR -- Suggest to free-spirited Doug Bergman his life sounds like a Jimmy Buffet song, and it turns into a eureka moment. "I worship him! He's my hero."

But the song with Bergman's name on it took on a sadder cast recently -- a pinch of regret, a dash of self-reflection and a heaping helping of Margaritaville.

On July 20, after returning from a wedding, Bergman discovered his house on fire. It's a 110-year-old heritage house he had been restoring for 20 years -- the restoration was 90 per cent complete. It was a gorgeous abode with a sort of curving mansard roof and two gables jutting out from each of three sides except for in back. It also had a widow's walk on the roof. A widow's walk was more common in seaports where supposedly a wife would watch for an incoming ship with her husband aboard. If the ship didn't come in, she knew she was a widow.

Bergman thinks his heritage home may have been a "kit house," one of those house designs you bought out of the Eaton's catalogue a century ago. People driving by would often stop and ask to peek inside the local landmark.

Bergman's trouble is he can't recollect much of what happened the night of the fire. He admits he came home hammered from the wedding reception. There's nothing illegal about being drunk -- a cousin drove him home. The fire was just smouldering in back of the house, otherwise his cousin would have seen the fire and helped him.

Bergman recalls walking into a house and wading through smoke about chest-high. He can't recall much after that and believes he may have blacked out. There's about an hour gap between the time he was dropped off and the time he phoned emergency. Now insurance investigators are accusing him of arson.

This isn't the way it's supposed to end for a heritage house, which is a total loss. The house was built for Edward Augustus Dugard of England, who made a pile of money surveying eastern Manitoba. Dugard bought the land in 1902, and some newspapers from 1905 found between the floorboards indicate that was probably when the house was completed.

It passed through several hands, and was even a regional headquarters for the RCMP in 1939. It had been abandoned since 1974 when Bergman came to the rescue in 1994. "I was going to flip it. I was going to fix it and move on. Then I started to like it."

He doesn't know how much time, labour and money he's put into it. A plumber by trade, he installed eight bathrooms, including one in each of five upstairs bedrooms, in case someone ever wanted to run a bed and breakfast.

He put on a cedar-shingle roof he estimated is worth $50,000 today. He completely rewired the home and replaced the hardwood floors throughout.

The home had 3,000 square feet, thanks to Bergman putting on an addition. He even built a mini-theatre in the basement with tiered seating, a ceiling projector and a curtained stage.

An insurance investigator accused him of torching his house that night. "He outright told me, 'You're an arsonist,' " Bergman related. "They want me to admit I burned it. They told me four times if I admit it now, they won't get the police involved, it's not a crime yet."

Bergman said an insurance investigator maintained he saw evidence of "accelerant," i.e. gasoline, in two locations where he believes the fire was started. He maintained Bergman poured the accelerant and started the fire.

Possibly. But what idiot pours gasoline in two parts of a house he's worked on for 20 years and has almost completed, then sits in the car and phones the fire station while watching his house burn down?

Sean Michaels, a councillor in the RM of Brokenhead, called the accusations "ridiculous." As well, there was a rash of arsons in the town that week, as documented in the local paper, the Clipper. "Doug put so much work into that home. It doesn't make any sense that they could even consider accusing him."

Bergman, 62, said he's talked to others who've had house fires and they said insurers put them through a similar ordeal. He will likely hire a lawyer.

The only cause of the fire Bergman can think of is that while ironing his shirt before the wedding, he'd pushed a toaster and griddle aside to make room. The griddle had a dial that may have turned on from being pushed against another object. There is significant charring where it was.

Bergman has no idea what his two-storey home was worth. Medium-sized bungalows in the neighbourhood sell in the $220,000 range.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2014 A7

History

Updated on Monday, August 11, 2014 at 9:57 AM CDT: corrects name of widow's walk

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