As temperatures drop, and Kelowna’s unhoused population attempts to stay warm, residents at the city-maintained Richter Street encampment are asking for safety precautions like fire extinguishers, proper fire pits, running water and electricity to be provided in order to mitigate the risk of a dangerous blaze.
Without access to shelter, people living at the Richter Street encampment say that many are using candles, wood fires and propane heaters to stay warm and provide light in and around their tents.
“Fires can get out of control in no time,” said Fernando, a resident of the encampment. He said that he has seen fires grow from sparks to full-encompassing blazes in a matter of seconds.
Fernando explained that without fire extinguishers and running water it can be difficult to snuff out the flames.
Cassie, a resident, said that she uses candles for light and warmth, despite knowing that flames inside a tent can be risky.
Cassie said that she fears for her own safety since blazes can spread between the nylon tents quickly, and although she is careful, her bed once caught on fire.
She said that others may not take the same precautions and she worried that a fire in a neighbouring tent could cause her serious harm and loss.
“If we’re going to have fires, we should at least have proper fire pits… or fire extinguishers,” said Fernando.
Fire Prevention Officer for the Kelowna Fire Department, Paul Johnson said that the Rail Trail encampment is in a city park, and in Kelowna it is illegal for people to have open fires in parks, implementing proper fire pits a non-feasible option.
He also explained that fire extinguishers have been provided in the past but because of the transient nature of the Tent City residents, and theft, the extinguishers were lost or misplaced.
Nash, a resident of the encampment said that they have been asking for extinguishers, “but the fire department won’t give us anything.”
He showed Capital News his scorched belongings after he fell victim to a recent blaze. He said that the damage could have been prevented with an extinguisher.
Johnson said that the fire department has placed extinguishers in the Sea-Can that is located beside the encampment, but he can not comment on if there is one there currently, as it may have “walked away.”
He said that there are no current plans to distribute personal extinguishers to residents.
According to Johnson, fire crews are out at the encampment on a regular basis to provide fire-safety education, and they advise people not to have heaters or flames inside their tents. Johnson said that there is signage up at Tent City, advising residents to keep their tents separated to prevent the spread of the flames. “Sometimes people do not want to be told what to do… for myself, having an open flame within a nylon tent, that’s ludicrous, but sometimes a lot of people don’t make good decisions”
Johnson said that as the temperature cooled, the fire department responded to three blazes at the encampment in a week.
“A lot of the times when we’re educating the message is not sinking in… it falls on deaf ears,” said Johnson.
Fernando also thinks that having access to electricty at the encampment could prevent fires. He explained that access to electricity would to allow people to heat water, power lights or heated blankets and reduce the need for unsafe fires, stoves and propane heaters.
The Central Okanagan Journey Home Society Executive Director Stephanie Gauthier said that her team is “pulling every lever we can to increase the number of indoor sheltering spaces available in Kelowna. Heading into the winter season, emergency mat programs and other extreme weather responses, and a variety of other initiatives are being planned… However, the demand for shelter continues to grow faster than new spaces are becoming available, and that means we will have people sheltering outdoors this winter.”
Shelters in Kelowna are currently at capacity, and even if there was availability, some people experiencing homelessness are not welcome at the shelters after breaking the rules of the residence, explained Garth, a resident at Kelowna’s homeless encampment.
The city needs to provide harm reduction strategies for people sheltering outdoors this winter, said Fernando.
“I would like to see the city start giving us a couple of breaks,” said Fernando.