01/08/2018 17:23 EST | Updated 01/08/2018 17:23 EST

Pubnico, N.S. Fire Killed 4 Kids Under Age 8

"Everybody cried. It's the worst nightmare."

PUBNICO, N.S. — The victims of a tragic house fire that swept through a rural Nova Scotia home Sunday were all children under the age of eight, according to a family member who has launched a fundraising campaign to pay for funeral costs.

The children — a girl and three boys — ran in ages from an infant to a seven-year-old and included a cousin who was at the Pubnico, N.S., home for a sleepover, said Rod Hand, whose wife's sister is the grandmother of one of the children.

"They're still in shock," said Hand, an artist from Conception Bay South, N.L., who is fundraising for the family by selling tickets to one of his canvas prints and starting a GoFundMe page.

"It's a blended family," he said. "One was actually a relative having a sleepover, so there are a number of families affected by this."

AN RCMP officer searchs the scene of a house destroyed in a weekend fire in Pubnico Head, N.S. on Jan. 8, 2018.

Two adults escaped the early morning blaze and were taken to hospital by ambulance. Ervin Olsen, great-grandfather of two children who died in the blaze, said Monday 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," said Olsen, whose granddaughter is the mother of some of the children.

The remains of at least some of the victims remained at the scene, an official said Monday, and police used a cadaver dog to search the rubble of the two-storey home about 265 kilometres southwest of Halifax.

There are no words to express this type of devastation.Cpl. Jennifer Clarke

Nova Scotia RCMP's Major Crimes Unit ruled out foul play, noting that a preliminary investigation determined it is not suspicious.

"This is an absolute tragedy," Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said in a statement. "There are no words to express this type of devastation."

She could not confirm the identities or number of dead.

The province's Medical Examiner Service has assumed the lead of the investigation.

RCMP officers and a representative of the Medical Examiner's office search the scene of a house destroyed in a weekend fire in Pubnico Head, N.S. on Jan. 8, 2018.

"I extend my heartfelt sympathies to the families of those lost in the fire as well as the communities of Pubnico and Yarmouth County as they grieve these extremely difficult losses," Dr. Matt Bowes, the province's chief medical examiner, said in a statement.

A day after the deadly blaze, 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.

An RCMP dog handler spent about 20 minutes combing the jagged, charred debris of the 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, and his handler moved to place 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.

The remains of at least some victims were "still there" in the house, West Pubnico Fire Chief Gordon Amiro said Monday morning.

Gordon Amiro, West Pubnico Volunteer Fire Department chief, talks with reporters at the scene of a house destroyed in a weekend fire in Pubnico Head, N.S. on Jan. 8, 2018.

He said flames had already engulfed the home when firefighters arrived early Sunday and firefighters could 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.

Residents of the area identified the father as a lobster fisherman. The Canadian Red Cross has said his common-law wife is with him in hospital.

Cause may not be determined for days

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."

Watch: Municipal councillor calls deadly house fire 'a disaster'

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.

Everybody cried. It's the worst nightmare.Neighbour

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.