Manitoba

Homeless residents 'heartbroken' after fire ravages Winnipeg camp

A thick blanket of smoke filled the air around the Osborne Bridge in Winnipeg on Wednesday morning when a fire burned through a homeless camp.

Fire cloaked Osborne Bridge in dark smoke during part of morning rush hour

A firefighter goes through the smouldering homeless camp under the Osborne Bridge. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A thick blanket of smoke filled the air around the Osborne Bridge in Winnipeg on Wednesday morning when a fire burned through a homeless camp.

Emergency crews were called around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday to the bridge, which was shrouded in dark smoke as morning commuters drove across.

The smoke belched from a blaze underneath the northbound bridge deck, where flames ravaged the collected belongings — an assemblage of shopping carts, blankets, boxes, tents, shelves and discarded furniture — of the camp's residents.

"The whole underneath of this was just one big fireball. It was scary," said one resident, who only identified himself as Billy.

A cloud of smoke shrouds the Osborne Bridge on Wednesday morning. (Submitted)

About seven people had been living there, he said.

He woke up because he could smell smoke and hear yelling.

"When I unzipped [the tent], somebody was screaming for water and the flames were already touching the bottom of the bridge. We tried to pull the surrounding tents away from it but that didn't help."

A thick blanket of smoke filled the air around the Osborne Bridge in Winnipeg on Wednesday morning when a fire burned through a homeless camp. Video: Terry Sinclair 0:29

Billy and others helped an older woman, known to everyone as Granny, get out of her tent "and we just left," he said.

"When we got out from under the bridge, that's when we realized the severity of it. You couldn't see anything, it was so thick."

Billy, one of the camp's residents, says he's heartbroken. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Granny, 67, said she scrambled out in bare feet, grabbing her boots as she went.

"Just another day for the homeless, there's always something going on," she said. "It's sad but true."

The blaze was brought under control within a short time by firefighters, and the smoke quickly dissipated.

When Billy and the others returned just before 9 a.m., half of the site was blackened debris scattered in muck and pools of water.

Smoke pours out from under the Osborne Bridge on Wednesday morning. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"Everything looks like it's pretty much just a puddle now," he said, looking over at the spot where he slept off-and-on for almost two years.

Granny, who has lived under the bridge for 2½ months, fared better. The fire was extinguished before it reached her side of the camp, leaving intact her makeshift kitchen, set up on a plastic storage tote with seasoning, sauces and pancake mix, and artwork she has received as gifts.

Regardless of whether the rest of the camp is rebuilt or people move on, the homeless community will remain as "one big family," she said.

Billy, one of the homeless camp residents, looks over the spot where his tent and belongings once stood. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"No matter where we are, under the Donald [Bridge], under the Maryland [Bridge], we all look after one another. We all congregate for occasions — Thanksgiving or whatever — and we help each other out," she said.

"Staying together in numbers is our security. We band in little groups, that's how we do it."

The fire consumed half of the camp under the bridge. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said the cause of the fire is still under investigation but Billy said it started after a woman was burning a candle.

She blew it out before pulling blankets over her head to sleep but "didn't realize it had caught fire," he said.

The woman tried to put out the flames but it spread too quickly, he said, adding she burned her hand a little but not seriously.

The other half of the homeless camp remains intact. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

No one else was hurt, at least not physically.

"More heartbroken than anything," he said. "No jackets, no blankets — there's a girl who's got no shoes. I don't know, I don't know what to do.

"We've been calling this home for so long. I don't know what to do."

In an email to CBC News, the WFPS said city bridge engineers inspected the Osborne Street Bridge structure Wednesday morning and determined no structural damage was incurred as a result of the fire. The underside of the bridge will be pressure washed using "special protocols" that involve the use of curtains to ensure no ash or soot goes into the river.

A fire under the Osborne Bridge destroyed part of camp where group has been living for more than 2 months. 2:05