Vancouver fire chief calls for action after propane tank explosion and fire in Downtown Eastside

Vancouver’s fire department chief is asking the city to do more to keep tents away from buildings in the Downtown Eastside after a propane tank explosion and fire on Sunday destroyed several tents at an encampment and s spread to the entrance of a nearby building before it was contained.

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Chief Karen Fry said her crews responded to 370 outdoor fires on East Hastings Street in the past eight months. Four people have already been injured this year, she said.

In July, Fry gave the order to clear the tent city. Tents were reduced, but fires increased.

“At this point, we’re just lucky that more people aren’t dead or injured,” Fry said Tuesday.

Although tent fires pose a huge safety risk, people living on the streets and the support groups that work with them say options for warmth are scarce.

Sunday’s fire went to the now-closed Imperial, a space for music events now closed for safety reasons. (Karen Fry/Twitter)

Fry said fires related to heaters inside tents are common. She said crews saw gasoline-powered devices such as torches and wood-burning stoves come into contact with flammable objects, including clothing or sleeping bags. Propane tanks can explode, as can lithium batteries used for e-bikes or e-scooters.

Another fire around noon Tuesday in a tent opposite where Sunday’s blaze occurred was quickly extinguished.

Some of these recent fires have spread to buildings, Fry added. Tents also blocked entrances and exits to these buildings, slowing down people trying to escape and firefighters trying to get inside, endangering everyone from residents to firefighters.

“They left us no choice”

John Henry, who has lived in the Hastings Street tent city for five months, says people have no choice but propane canisters to keep warm.

At the start of winter, he said, people set up a fire barrel far from their homes, but firefighters kept shutting it down.

“They left us no choice but to hide our little fires to keep us warm,” he said.

A man in a hat, black vest with a T-shirt underneath stands on a sidewalk in the Downtown Eastside on a sunny day.
John Henry, who lives on Hastings Street, says people have limited options for keeping warm. (Susana Da Silva/CBC)

Fry said tents should not be allowed near buildings.

“It’s risking too many lives, damage to buildings, and risk to responders in the area…I understand it’s a very complex situation in the Downtown Eastside, and we have a lot of different resources there trying to make it happen. in the face of risk,” she said.

Anna Cooper of the Pivot Legal Society says the fire department needs to work with homeless people to provide realistic and safe options for staying warm.

“We need to stop pretending that people will just freeze,” she said.

WATCH | Anna Cooper of the Pivot Legal Society says people need help keeping warm:

Vancouver Fire Department asked to work with homeless people after explosive propane fire at tent camp

Anna Cooper of Pivot Legal Society says the fire department needs to work with homeless people and not pretend people just can’t use anything when it’s cold.

Sunday’s explosion was not far from where police found a body inside the remains of a burnt-out tent earlier this month. Crews said it appeared the woman had died before the fire, but was not found until after firefighters extinguished the flames.

More supportive homes coming soon: BC Housing

Kevin J. Barlow, executive director of the Hastings Crossing BIA, said he was concerned people could die if the situation did not improve.

“I don’t know if the City of Vancouver has a plan, and I really think they need to bring together people, experts and community stakeholders and figure out what the plan is.”

The city and BC Housing say they are working to establish social and supportive housing, including in the Downtown Eastside. BC Housing said 129 new units have been made available since July.

“Long-term work is underway on approximately 700 new supportive housing units for homeless people in Vancouver,” the housing authority wrote in a statement.

A blue circular symbol, with a house inside, next to a sign that says
The City of Vancouver says it is working with BC Housing to provide social and supportive housing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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