British Columbia

Chilliwack, B.C., fire department issues warning after 2 fires involving homeless

A woman was airlifted to hospital after suffering serious burns from an outdoor fire early Wednesday morning, according to the fire department.

One woman suffered serious burns and was airlifted to hospital

Police tape surrounds the site of an early morning fire in Chilliwack, B.C. A woman's belongings were scorched, and she was airlifted to hospital after suffering serious burns. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

The Chilliwack, B.C., Fire Department has issued a warning to the public to dispose of fuel containers after two back-to-back outdoor fires in the city in less than three hours — including one which left a woman seriously burned.

The fire department said it received the first call of a fire in a homeless camp near Rowat Avenue on Tuesday at 11:40 p.m. PT.

Although crews were able to contain the fire quickly, their efforts were complicated by nearby fuel containers — namely small propane cylinders and aerosol cans — which began exploding from the heat of the fire.

Then, fire crews responded to a second call a few hours later at 2:50 a.m. Wednesday of another fire in the 9300 block of Williams Street.

The department said it found a woman's personal belongings in flames against a building. While they were able to extinguish the fire, the woman sustained severe burns and was airlifted to hospital.

While the causes of both fires are under investigation, the Chilliwack fire department is warning people to exercise caution using propane cylinders and aerosol containers.

A growing problem

Sharon Gaetz, mayor of Chilliwack, told CBC News the woman involved in the second fire was burned when a candle ignited her bedding and clothes.

"This is tragic," Gaetz said. "It's so sad for our community that anybody has had this kind of experience."

Gaetz said homelessness in Chilliwack has increased by 203 per cent in the last year, with the most recent count pegging the city's homeless population at 221.

Though she pointed out that housing is a provincial responsibility, Gaetz said the city has spent $3 million in the last year on efforts to combat homelessness.

She also said the city hopes to open an additional 46 low-barrier modular beds — and an additional 10 exclusively for women — at the Salvation Army, the city's only shelter.

Those beds would more than double the shelter's current capacity of 48 beds, plus five emergency beds.

Tent material a fire hazard

As the weather turns cooler, fire departments are concerned about the fire risk in homeless encampments.

Last December, a fire ripped through a homeless camp in Langley, B.C., and displaced dozens of people. It was speculated the fire was caused by someone using a propane tank inside a tent to keep warm.

The aftermath of a large fire that broke out at a Langley, B.C., homeless camp in December 2016. (Curtis Kreklau)

Vancouver Fire Captain Jonathan Gormick echoed the concerns of the Chilliwack fire department.

He said Vancouver firefighters removed propane cylinders and cooking stoves from tents at the Sugar Mountain tent city in east Vancouver on Tuesday.

"They were being used in tents as heating devices which unfortunately can't be allowed because of the flammable nature of tent material," Gormick said.

Gormick said the encampment does have a separate cooking area away from the tents where cooking devices are allowed.

The Sugar Mountain tent city in east Vancouver has a separate cooking area far from the flammable tent city, Fire Captain Jonathan Gormick says. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)