Anita Place Tent City is going to be made safer.
Maple Ridge Fire and Rescue, along with city employees, will be at the camp on 223rd Street on Wednesday to help residents remove flammable furniture, propane cylinders, gasoline containers and anything else that could contribute to a catastrophic conflagration.
One tent has already burned in the tent city, now in its second year of operation. That fire occurred on snowy day in December. No one was injured.
“If that fire was to take place today … it would take out a huge amount of the camp,” fire chief Howard Exner said Monday.
The fire department has been making weekly visits to help residents meet fire regulations, set out last November in a Supreme Court order when Pivot Legal Society and the City of Maple Ridge reached an agreement, with the city suspending its injunction application.
But, Exner said, the camp is becoming more congested as a result of the material being hauled on to the site. He estimates 70 people now live there.
“We need to bring fire safety back to mind. I’m not comfortable with what takes place there. We had that fire … that took place in the winter when it was cold, wet and damp … If we had that fire today, it would be catastrophic. There would be people who would die in the camp, today,” Exner said.
“And it would be a fire that would be completely uncontrollable.”
The wooden shanty buildings and people living closer together, “everything that’s going on down there is increasing the likelihood of having a catastrophic event.”
The goal for Wednesday’s cleanup is to help residents improve fire safety. It may take more than one day, but the fire department expects it will be able to take away the greatest hazards.
One contractor will be on site to help haul away propane tanks. There’s also gasoline in the camp to run generators, Exner added.
At some point, residents have to police what items are brought into the camp and what represents a fire hazard, he added.
Pivot Legal Society lawyer Anna Cooper said the society is working with the city, but that residents need support in reaching compliance.
Exner said there’s been some recent improvement.
“They’re still not in compliance with the fire regulations that were set forth for the camp, yes, that’s correct,” he added.
“We’re working with them right now … trying to move them along, a more collaborative way of handling that situation.”
An open letter released last Friday by two University of Victoria nursing professors, Bernie Pauly and Marilou Gagnon, and endorsed by Pivot Legal, calls for a move away from using public health as a rationale for removing tent cities.
The letter said that “the risk of fire exists whether people live in unsheltered settings alone or in tent cities.”
The letter also said that “solutions” to fire risks in tent cities have been legal actions and fire orders with conditions that can exacerbate homelessness. It cited one order from a tent city in Nanaimo that prohibited tarps.
But during a hot spell, that can increase the temperature inside tents by 5 C, the letter said.
Exner said the fire department isn’t dismantling the camp.
“We’re not removing tents at all. We’re not taking anything from anybody.”
The fire department just wants to ensure the residents live by safety standards agreed to last winter.
Fire officials are dealing with tent city the same way they’d approach any other unsafe building, he added.