An encampment fire in Rock Bay Landing Wednesday night signals just how important it for people to have access to indoor shelter, says Dan Atkinson, deputy chief for the Victoria Fire Department.
With dropping temperatures and snow on the horizon, Atkinson says attempts at keeping warm pose a massive risk to people living in tents.
“This incident really illustrates why we are strongly discouraging the use of open flame and propane heating inside these structures,” he said. “We know it’s cold, we know times are tough but at the end of the day, it’s not safe to have these types of heaters present out there. We certainly understand the desire to keep warm, we just need to find other solutions.”
At least one person was injured in the tent fire Wednesday night. Around 8:40 p.m. emergency crews responded to a fire in the 500-block of Ellice Street after receiving reports that multiple tents were on fire with people possibly still inside, as well as propane tank explosions.
According to an incident report, the fire had spread to five or six tents and the pallets they were sitting on as the Victoria Fire Department arrived on scene. One man was treated for burns to his hands, arms and head.
The cause of the fire is undetermined.
Atkinson said the encampments are particularly dangerous for fire spread.
“Tents are not designed to be fire resistant or present the spread of fire at all,” he said. “These are extremely dangerous circumstances, not only for the occupants but for the first responders as well.”
Outdoor heaters, when used inside a structure, also pose a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, Atkinson added.
Before COVID-19, extreme weather shelters were available during inclement weather but that option is no longer available.
Instead, local organizations have opened seasonal shelters over the winter, offering more stability for those who need them. Still – those shelters fill quickly, and can only take half their capacity to allow for safe physical distancing.
“Because of COVID-19 it’s hard to get the appropriate staffing and space,” said Grant McKenzie, communications director for Our Place Society. “In Victoria, people don’t tend to get frostbite like they do in the Prairies, but they can still get really cold, and when they have underlying conditions that can exacerbate those.”
McKenzie, speaking to Black Press hours before the Rock Bay Landing fire, noted heating sources as another concern.
“Over the last few years, we have had deaths in the winter from people who are taking heating elements into their tents,” he said. “And it doesn’t take much to knock over a candle or one of those propane burners that you’re not supposed to have in a tent – it’s quite easy to start a fire, but if you’re cold, you’re gonna do whatever it takes. ”
Unable to offer indoor sheltering at its own facility, Our Place Society has been handing out warm blankets, sleeping bags and clothing to help people who are sleeping outside.
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