Beacon Hill blaze: Tent fires a growing concern as temperatures drop

By Friday afternoon, crews in white hazmat suits had mostly cleaned up the site of a fire in Beacon Hill Park that destroyed a tent and burned a nearby tree.

A camper named Max, who has been living in the park since May, said he lost his tent and many of his belongings, including a down jacket, radios and several cameras. He said he left an oil burner on in his tent for warmth while he went to another structure just a few metres away to change.

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Max said he normally leaves the burner in a pot, but he forgot to do that Thursday night.

“Unless I forget, that’s what I do. So if it does tip over, it won’t go all over the place,” he said.

He planned to set up a new tent for shelter in another area of the park.

No one was injured in the fire, which broke out across from South Park Elementary School shortly after 7:30 p.m. Someone walking in the park spotted the flames and ran to a fire hall on Michigan Street to report it. Firefighters were on scene within minutes and found the tent and surrounding debris fully engulfed, with flames shooting almost 10 metres in the air.

Fire investigators did not determine a cause, said city spokesman Bill Eisenhauer. Parks staff will assess the site when it’s completely cleared and determine a remediation plan.

Grant McKenzie, communications director for Our Place Society, said tent fires are always a concern during winter, when people sheltering outside are trying to stay warm however they can. With more people living in tents during the pandemic, it’s become a greater concern, he said.

“When you’re in that survival mode you just want to have something in your tent that keeps you warm,” McKenzie said.

Jen Wilde, regional coordinator of the Greater Victoria Extreme Weather Protocol, said those close to the unhoused community have been expecting a tent fire, and the only solution is adequate housing.

“We need to get people indoors,” she said.

Roy Fletcher, president of the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, said he was not surprised by the fire.

“There’s going to be more fires. There’s going to be more people trying to warm their tent and then running off,” he said.

Fletcher said the incident has reaffirmed the need to end camping in the park. He would like to see all sheltering banned, but knows that’s not possible because of a B.C. Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to shelter in parks overnight if there is not adequate housing. The society has been pushing for an end to 24/7 camping in the park, launching a lawsuit against the city for allowing it. The city recently decided to ask the courts to rule on whether sheltering violates the terms of the park trust.

“The only solution is to get people into permanent structures,” Fletcher said.

Meanwhile, a group of volunteers who set up an unapproved community care tent near the petting zoo in the park have been told by the city they need to remove the structure. The tent is not being used for sheltering, so it violates the terms of the Beacon Hill Park trust, Eisenhauer said.

An approved care tent to be set up adjacent to the park on Cook Street is in the works. Grant funding for the tent was approved by city council and it will be operated by the Red Cedar Cafe Association. The structure is going through a permitting process to ensure it has safety protocols for fire and COVID-19.

“As you can see from the recent fire, unauthorized structures — structures that don’t have those kinds of measures in place — they can be hazardous,” Eisenhauer said.

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