Fatal encampment fires top concern this year, says Edmonton's fire chief

Five people have died in encampment fires so far in 2022, Edmonton fire Chief Joe Zatylny said Thursday.

Crews have responded to more than 72,000 calls in 2022

Edmonton police distributed this photograph Thursday showing the aftermath of an encampment fire at 105A Avenue and 96th Street on Dec. 13.
Edmonton police distributed this photograph Thursday showing the aftermath of an encampment fire the day before at 105A Avenue and 96th Street. The fire started with a propane tank explosion, police said. (Edmonton Police Service)

Five people have died in encampment fires so far in 2022, Edmonton's fire chief said Thursday.

Finding ways to prevent similar deaths is a 2023 priority for Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, Chief Joe Zatylny said during a year-end news conference.

"Going forward into the new year, we need to take a stronger focus and we need to get a better understanding of what's happening," Zatylny told reporters.

Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, firefighters responded to 65 fires involving tents and encampments in the city. Five people died, and with more cold weather in the forecast, Zatylny worries it could keep happening.

He said propane bottles, the types of materials being burned, and difficulties with accessing and escaping the areas where encampment fires happen can make them challenging to fight.

But simply spraying down an encampment fire with water and walking away isn't a viable solution either.

"We know people need to stay warm. They need light to see and be safe, and they need to cook and eat," the chief said.

"But there could be other items and complexities that are happening in these encampments that we don't understand yet that would contribute to a better outcome for us as well."

A man in a dark blue uniform looks into the camera.
Edmonton fire Chief Joe Zatylny speaks to the media in a year-end news conference on Dec. 15, 2022. (Sam Brooks/CBC)

The chief said he is hopeful that the Healthy Streets Operation Centre (HSOC) will yield results, and said he's looking forward to data sharing and collaborating with police, Alberta Health Services and other agencies on finding the best way to protect people experiencing homelessness.

Later Thursday, the Edmonton Police Service said a HSOC community safety team was first on the scene Tuesday when a propane tank exploded, sparking a fire that burned down at least three unoccupied tents in the area of 105A Avenue and 96th Street.

Zatylny said he has been invited to sit on the province's recently announced task force to address crime, addiction and social issues in the city.

He said he hasn't yet received approval to join from city manager Andre Corbould, to join, but said he thinks it's an exciting idea.

Deliberately set fires on the rise

The top causes of fire in the city shifted in 2022, the chief said. 

Normally, cooking fires and improperly discarded cigarettes are the leading culprits in preventable blazes, but this year deliberately or suspected deliberately set fires were the leading cause.

Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, there have been more than 1,500 deliberately set fires. Those fires have caused more than $32 million in damage.

In all of 2021 there were 971 deliberately set fires, Zatylny said.

He said it can be difficult to catch and prove intent when it comes to deliberately set fires, but added they are working closely with EPS on the issue given the significant increase.

Fires started by people trying to stay warm are not counted as deliberate.

Overall calls are also up: so far this year, crews have responded to 72,000. In 2021 there were 67,000 calls for service.

There have been 14 reportable fire-related deaths in total, including the five people who died in encampment fires.

Problem properties

Zatylny said he's proud of the decrease in house fires in north central Edmonton, attributing the success to the work of a community property safety team.

Funded by the city, the team has a mandate to force the owners of so-called problem properties to clean up vacant and unsecured buildings at risk of burning.

He said at this point in 2021, there had been more than 130 fires. So far this year there have been 13.

The chief said 177 problem properties have been identified, and that so far 55 have been cleaned up and 22 have been demolished.   

The 18-month pilot program includes the neighbourhoods of Alberta Avenue, Delton, Eastwood, Elmwood Park, Parkdale and Westwood.

Alberta Avenue residents in particular have been outspoken about their concerns that fires in their neighbourhood were acts of arson.

In June, police laid arson charges against a man following an investigation into 44 fires in the area that investigators believed were all related.


Paige Parsons is an Edmonton-based reporter for CBC News, currently covering health. Send Paige a story tip at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.