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Open flames, space heaters pose major fire risks for homeless: officials

Last Updated Nov 9, 2017 at 12:40 pm PST

VANCOUVER – A fire that left a woman with serious injuries has raised concerns about safety for homeless people as temperatures dip in British Columbia.

Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said fire crews were called to two separate blazes involving homeless camps overnight Tuesday, including one where a woman sustained serious burns and needed to be airlifted to hospital.

Officials have heard anecdotal reports that the fire started in a tent in the Fraser Valley city, she said, but by the time crews arrive on scene “there wasn’t much left.”

Temperatures across B.C. have dropped, and Gaetz said officials are hearing more reports of people on the streets who are resorting to dangerous measures to ward off the cold.

“What we’re finding is that the homeless who are not in the shelters are using propane (or) candles to keep warm,” she said. “And it puts them in a very precarious situation, and of course presents danger to the firefighters.”

Capt. Jonathan Gormick with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said crews confiscated propane-powered cooking devices and space heaters from a homeless camp in east Vancouver on Tuesday because the devices pose serious health and fire risks.

“What we can’t tolerate is having sources of ignition in the tents,” he said. “We’ve seen in previous examples that the flammability of the tents is so high that it would just take a spark on that nylon to set the tent alight and that could rapidly spread to other tents.”

Fuel-powered devices like cooking stoves are especially dangerous because they create carbon monoxide, an odourless, colourless and highly poisonous gas, he added.

“If someone were to fall asleep in their tent with their fuel-powered heating device or cooking device to keep warm, there’s a very significant chance that they could be overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Fire prevention officers try to work collaboratively with homeless campers to inform them about potential safety issues and communicate about why things need to be done, Gormick said.

“We’ve worked with every encampment that’s popped up in the city of Vancouver … recognizing that these people certainly aren’t camping by choice,” he said. “Certainly, there are housing challenges in the city of Vancouver. But we want to make sure that everyone in that camp is safe.”

Last winter, fire ripped through a homeless camp in Chilliwack during a spell of cold weather. Gaetz said the blaze was sparked after some wooden pallets were dropped off at the camp so people wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground.

“Of course, this combined with propane tanks and candles and whatever sort of heat source they could find and it turned into a huge fire,” she said. “And I can recall seeing homeless people on the street in bare feet while the flames were consuming their tents.”

The mayor said the fires are happening more and more often, and the issue showcases the need for more permanent shelters throughout the region

The provincial government has heard the pleas for support, she added, and plans are in the works to bring temporary modular housing to Chilliwack to help alleviate the issue of homelessness.