Nanaimo’s deputy fire chief is calling the city’s bylaw officers “heroic” for rushing in to evacuate people when fire raced through a group of tents and propane tanks were exploding on a street near city hall this week.
When the fire broke out shortly after noon on Thursday, city bylaw officers were first on the scene as the blaze consumed about four adjacent tents in minutes and other explosions were heard, Deputy Chief Tim Doyle said.
“I would say their work was very heroic. It was a large fire with propane tanks and compressed gases going off.”
Campers living in the tents on Wesley Street were “very reluctant” to leave, he said.
“Those were all their belongings,” said Doyle, who had been up the street when the fire started and was able to reach the scene quickly.
Black smoke billowed in the air as firefighters tackled the fire. The camp was evacuated and the street closed.
Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said municipal bylaw officers “placed themselves in serious danger trying to get people out of that situation.”
About 60 people are believed to have been living on Wesley Street at the time, Doyle said.
The tent city had been in place for several months. On Oct. 15, the Nanaimo Fire Department issued an order banning combustible materials and ignition sources and requiring that the road be kept clear. It asked that multiple tarps on tents be removed and that tents be spaced apart.
That order remains in effect and the tent city will not be permitted to return, city officials said. No one was injured in the fire, which Doyle said “really had the potential to be a lot worse than it was.”
He said it was fortunate that the fire occurred during the day, when the tents’ occupants were awake and there were people close by to help evacuate. “If it had happened in the middle of the night, who knows what would have happened?”
It’s unclear how the fire started, he said.
During the fire, it sounded as though there were smaller explosions, which could have come from compressed gases or small propane tanks, he said. It’s unclear if anyone was inside the tents when the fire broke out.
About four tents caught fire and some tarps were spread over more than one tent, he said. “It spread very quickly.”
Fires in tent cities are a constant concern for officials, who repeatedly warned of the danger of flammable tarps and other items when Nanaimo had the largest tent city in B.C. in 2018.
On Friday, campers were allowed back to the site to take personal possessions.
It’s expected that Wesley Street will be closed to traffic throughout this weekend.
Two supportive-housing projects were opened by the province when the 2018 tent city was dismantled, but it’s estimated that hundreds of people still do not have homes.
People are allowed to camp overnight in certain parks. Others go to shelters or have dispersed into the woods.
Krog said that he and Sheila Malcolmson, MLA for Nanaimo and the newly appointed minster of Mental Health and Addictions, have been in touch after the fire, which was about 200 yards from his city-hall office.
As for what happened to the campers, he said it appeared that a number of people were picked up by family members. Social agencies went to the scene, providing information about shelters and offering tents if necessary.
Even so, 14 shelter beds remained unused overnight, said Krog, who has called on the province to take stronger action to tackle the city’s homeless crisis.
Krog said severely addicted, mentally ill and brain-injured residents living on the street need to be in a secure facility.
Council will address the issue at its Monday meeting, he said.