British Columbia

Cold snap sparks fire concerns at homeless camps

With chilly temperatures come warnings from fire officials and homeless advocates about the potential dangers of running space heaters and burning candles in tents.

Officials warn of dangers from space heaters and candles inside tents

Vancouver firefighters battle flames at a homeless area in Pigeon Park early Thursday morning. Officials say the cold weather has heightened fears of fire hazards in homeless camps (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The cold weather that's descended on the South Coast this December is leading to heightened fears of fire hazards in homeless camps.

With overnight lows expected to drop well below zero across the Lower Mainland this weekend, there are concerns that people living on the streets will turn on space heaters or burn candles in their tents to keep warm

It's exactly the type of situation that led to a fatality in Vancouver a few years ago, said Fire Chief John McKearney.

"That was unfortunately a lady who had a built a home with a shopping cart and materials all around her," said McKearney.

"She had a candle in there and it started the whole inside structure on fire, resulting in her death."

McKearney said crews responded to a similar call early Thursday morning in the Downtown Eastside.

"We had a fire in make-shift quarters out in the street, and invariably that's what happens with some of these devices; they tip over or they're close to combustibles."

Items scattered near a homeless area go up in flames at Vancouver's Pigeon Park early Thursday morning. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

'I hear about small fires all the time'

It's a worry echoed by Shayne Williams, executive director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which provides services for homeless people across Metro Vancouver.

"I hear about small fires all the time, in terms of people trying to stay warm, typically in tents or wooded areas," Williams said.

"Many of these tents can be flammable, particularly the cheaper tents that are more accessible, unfortunately, to the folks who are suffering from poverty concerns."

Judy Graves, a former homeless advocate for the City of Vancouver, has seen these fire hazards first-hand.

"Fires in the tents are extremely dangerous," Graves said. "The tents themselves are flammable. I've seen sleeping bags in the tents that have caught on fire."

Graves noted that one of the biggest dangers is burning candles in sealed spaces.

"The flame will take up all of the oxygen in the tent. I've actually pulled a young girl out of the tent when she was anoxic — she was not getting any oxygen."

As for a solution, officials and advocates said people should seek shelter at a warming escape the chilly temperatures.

Last weekend, the City of Vancouver opened three additional community centres to serve as make-shift warming centres.