Encampments are unsafe, fire chief warns
Resident seriously injured in explosive blaze set off by compressed-gas devices
Encampments that have sprung up around Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic are putting the safety of residents at risk, the city’s chief of emergency operations said Wednesday, in the wake of a fire that resulted in four explosions, seriously injuring one person.
“The materials that are commonly collected and stockpiled in encampments represent an imminent, immediate threat to life,” said Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, speaking at a COVID update from city hall.
He said the remnants of three compressed-gas devices were found in a tent after the most recent encampment fire on Tuesday.
“Public safety — nearby residents and businesses — as well as the safety, of course, of those living in an encampment, is always a concern,” Pegg told the Star later, adding that the devices also increase the risk to firefighters and other first responders to the scene.
Tuesday’s fire on Fraser Avenue, near Lamport Stadium in Liberty Village, began at about 5:30 p.m. Two people were rescued by members of a community safety team from the St. Felix Centre shelter, who happened to be nearby. Two occupants of the encampment were injured, one seriously.
Asked whether encampments could be made safer by providing residents living in them with fire extinguishers and instruction on how to use them,
Pegg said the idea was considered, but it’s problematic.
“If you find yourself in a tent or in one of the polystyrene domes or the small makeshift shelters and a fire ignites, I can tell you from personal experience, there will be no time to escape, let alone look for, find and deploy a fire extinguisher,” Pegg said.
“The only way that we are going
to keep people safe in those environments is to eliminate those hazards from fire and to do everything that we can to move those folks, who represent some of our most vulnerable residents, into safe, well-equipped indoor accommodations.”
Toronto Fire has responded to 229 fires in encampments this year.
Mayor John Tory said people who are telling those living in encampments that they are safer living outdoors than in shelters have got it wrong.
“The shelter system, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the staff and the movement of many people to alternative combinations, is safe,” Tory said.
In a court hearing this summer, city lawyers said that encampment fires throughout 2020 had caused the temporary closure of four city bridges and elevated roadways, and that many people living in the camps had refused requests o remove propane tanks kept inside tents and next to tents.
In a recent interview with the Star, Pegg also said the material being used in makeshift foam sleeping domes is highly combustible and flammable, noting that while it can be used in construction, it needs a protective or thermal barrier — something like drywall.
He said installing smoke or carbon monoxide alarms wouldn’t help, as fluctuations in temperature and humidity outside would make them unreliable. Even if they were activated, there would be little time to escape.