No members of the public or firefighters were injured as a result of what Sechelt Volunteer Fire Department Chief Trevor Pike called “a tent and rubbish fire” at 5656 Hightide Avenue in the early hours of Aug. 11. This location is a vacant lot on the west side of Hightide Avenue, across the street from the supportive housing facility.
Fire department response
Pike said the department was dispatched to the site at 5:08 a.m. and remained on scene for about 45 minutes. The fire is out and no spot fires remain in the area, according to Pike, who personally patrolled the surrounding area, which he said is home to at least seven other tenting sites that serve as homes.
“Once we got on scene, it was quickly determined that it was a homeless encampment that was on fire and that fire had spread into nearby trees. It had started to candle up a very large cedar tree and had reached the top at 65 to 70 feet in the air,” Pike said.
The blaze destroyed two tents and what Pike described as a “wooden structure that appeared to have been used as an outdoor patio.”
The department called for assistance from the RCMP and Emergency Health Services (EHS) while enroute to the site with three apparatuses and 18 firefighters. The RCMP attended and assisted with keeping the area and perimeter safe. EHS was on scene throughout the incident and Pike was not aware of any individuals that needed medical assistance as a result of the fire.
Pike said he was unsure how many people were living in the tents involved in the blaze but said the RCMP confirmed to him that two females had been living in that location. He said that those individuals did not appear to be on scene when the department arrived. The department did encounter five individuals in the area while they were in attendance who appeared to be residents of the encampment.
A nearby tent was saved by the department’s fire suppression efforts. No other property damage or damage to other structures resulted from the fire.
A fire inspector was on scene throughout the morning of Aug. 11, but no cause has been officially determined. Pike said that the suspected cause is “human failing," likely the result improperly disposed of a smoking materials, a campfire or a cooking device. Pike said this was disappointing as campfires and other forms of outdoor burning are completed banned at this time on the Coast.
Witness and area resident Penny Berdahl told Coast Reporter she was awakened around 5 a.m. by sounds of at least five loud explosions, which she suspected were propane tanks involved in the blaze. After leaving her home, which is across the street from the site she saw the large tree completely engulfed in flames and a number of her neighbours watching in horror. A neighbour told Berdahl that 911 had been called.
Berdahl said she saw numerous residents of the tents that had sprung up in the area rushing about and trying to help each other, including a person rushing a dog away from the scene.
“I’ve told people this was going to happen” she said about the fire. “Someone could have died, it is heart-wrenching and I feel for them. There appears to be no help for them, which is wrong, but the fire could have hit our building or the nearby condos and either could be gone in a second.”
A life-long resident of the Coast, Berdahl said she moved to Hightide Avenue before the supportive housing complex was built. “When I moved to this location it was a peaceful cul de sac. Since the construction (of the supportive housing) it is continuous, sirens, screaming and fighting."
She said she has contacted the District of Sechelt and the RCMP with her concerns multiple times but has seen no long-term solutions delivered. She said that bylaw enforcement will clear out tents from the site only to have new ones appear within weeks.
Sechelt’s communications officer Lindsay Vickers provided a written response to Coast Reporter's questions about the encampment location. She wrote: “Our bylaw officers are attentive to our local homeless population to ensure that they are in compliance, have connections to available resources and are safe. District staff, including bylaw, works closely with local RCMP and homelessness coordinator and attends camp sites often, including the sites that might pop up around RainCity. The District continues to advocate and work with other organizations and government, including Vancouver Coastal Health to support these vulnerable people. The District is looking holistically and assesses community safety for all residents as we know this is also of importance.”
Coast Reporter contacted the RCMP and RainCity, operators of the supportive housing facility, for comment but received no responses by press time.
When asked about the impacts the encampment has had for her area, Berdahl said, "The neighbourhood around the shelter and the supportive housing facility is suffering and is scared, we are literally scared."