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

The head of Vancouver’s fire department is calling on the city to do more to move tents away from buildings in the Downtown Eastside after a propane tank explosion and fire on Sunday that destroyed several tents in an encampment and spread to the entranceway of a nearby building before it was contained.

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

In July, Fry issued an order to clear the tent city. The tents have been reduced, but the fires have increased. 

“At this point, we’re just fortunate more people haven’t died or been injured,” Fry said Tuesday.

While tent fires are a huge safety risk, people living on the streets and the support groups that work with them say options to keep warm are scarce. 

Firefighters attend to a fire at a building.
Sunday’s blaze made its way to the now-shuttered Imperial, a space for music events now closed over safety concerns. (Karen Fry/Twitter)

Fry said fires related to heating devices inside tents are common. She said crews are seeing gas-powered devices such as torches and wood stoves coming into contact with flammable items, including clothing or sleeping bags. Propane tanks can explode, as can the lithium batteries used for e-bikes or electric scooters.

Yet another fire around noon on Tuesday in a tent across from where Sunday’s fire occurred was quickly put out.

Some of these recent fires have spread to buildings, Fry added. Tents have also blocked entrances and exits from those buildings, slowing 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 tent city on Hastings Street for five months, says people don’t have much choice other than propane tanks to stay warm.

At the beginning of winter, he says people set up a fire barrel away from their living quarters, but the fire department kept shutting it down.

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

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

Fry said tents shouldn’t be permitted near buildings.

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

Anna Cooper with the Pivot Legal Society says the fire department needs to work with unhoused people to come up with realistic and safe options to stay warm. 

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

WATCH | Pivot Legal Society’s Anna Cooper says people need help staying warm:

vancouver fire chief calls for action after propane tank explosion and fire in downtown eastside 2

Vancouver fire department asked to work with unhoused people after explosive propane fire at tent encampment

8 hours ago

Duration 0:34

Anna Cooper with Pivot Legal Society says the fire department needs to work with unhoused people and not pretend that people can simply use nothing when it’s cold.

The explosion Sunday wasn’t far from the location where police found a body inside the remains of a burned tent earlier this month. Crews said it appeared the woman died before the fire but was not found until after firefighters extinguished the flames.

More supportive homes coming: B.C. Housing

Kevin J. Barlow, executive director of the Hastings Crossing BIA, said he fears people will die if the situation doesn’t improve.

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

The city and B.C. Housing say they’re working to implement social and supportive housing, including in the Downtown Eastside. B.C. Housing said 129 new units have been made available since July.

“Over the long term, work is underway on approximately 700 new supportive homes for people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver,” the housing authority wrote in a statement.

A blue circular symbol, with a house within it, next to a sign that reads 'BC Housing' is affixed on a building.
The City of Vancouver says it’s working with B.C. Housing to provide social and supportive housing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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