Number of fires at homeless camps rising
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Freezing temperatures and an increasing number of tent shelters throughout the city have led to an increase in the number of fires sparking in temporary homeless camps.
Responding to encampments has become a focus for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, which now devotes a full-time fire prevention officer position to check on those residents, give them information about safe and warm shelter, and curb hazards.
It’s outreach that became critical following a death in an explosion at a Higgins Avenue encampment in February 2021, said Scott Wilkinson, WFPS assistant chief of community risk reduction.
The work started unofficially last winter, and became a full-time position in the summer.
The work has helped the fire department build trust with people who live in the encampments, but it’s too early to say whether it has reduced the number of fires in temporary shelters, the WFPS said.
“We certainly have great relationships out there, and (the officer is) able to get the messaging out, but we are seeing still a large number of fires and issues occurring this year. And whether that’s completely due to lack of compliance or just increased number of encampments, it’s hard to tell exactly,” Wilkinson said.
There have been more than two dozen reported fires since Halloween, with 21 occurring in November. This week, two fires were reported at the Higgins Avenue encampment.
Typically, there’s so much damage to the tents and temporary structures it’s hard to determine what caused the blaze, WFPS said. Explosions from small propane camping heaters are a major concern, as is the risk of the fire spreading rapidly through extremely flammable tarps and other debris.
“Anecdotally speaking, I think most of the fires are people trying to keep warm, and then also use them for various purposes… We do see fires in the summer months, as well, but they grow in the winter time when there is more warmth required,” Wilkinson said.
The fire department also receives a significant number of medical calls arising from the encampments. Officials are worried about the risk of carbon monoxide exposure from burning fires in small, enclosed shelters.
“We just don’t want to be in a position where we’re going to have to respond to someone who’s seriously injured or killed in one of those situations or put our responders at risk in dealing with it,” Wilkinson said.
He said the department takes a “very cautious approach” to the encampments. The goal is to educate residents about fire safety and ultimately remove unsafe materials, such as compressed gases and combustibles. But ultimately, they don’t want anyone to be living out in the cold.
“First and foremost, we don’t want to see people living in these situations because it is inherently unsafe. We want to connect them with the support agencies that are in the community and with the proper authorities to help get them into proper housing,” Wilkinson said.
A fire was reported at the Higgins encampment Friday afternoon, following one Monday.
Part of the encampment on the first block of Higgins Avenue was destroyed, the fire department stated in a news release. There were no injuries reported and no one inside the damaged tents when firefighters arrived.
On Friday, crews were on their way to another call when they noticed heavy flames and smoke at the Higgins encampment. They searched the tents and structures to make sure no one was inside and sprayed water from a safe distance, as there were propane tanks nearby, a news release said.
The cause of both fires are under investigation.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.