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Wet, cold, desperate, Kelowna tent city residents plead for fire extinguishers

While it is against the rules to use fire, people are desperate for warmth, say Tent City residents
A Kelowna Tent City resident pictured with his burnt cooler after a fire spread from a neighbouring tent. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

Residents at Kelowna’s Tent City are pleading for fire extinguishers after a series of damaging fires have swept through the city-maintained encampment over the past month.

Some of the blazes at the encampment, which is located adjacent to the Rail Trail at Richter Street and Weddell Place, have made headlines in Kelowna.

READ MORE: Another tent goes up in flames at Kelowna encampment

Despite the increased attention, Tent City residents say that the media’s depiction of the situation does not tell the full story and that they are in desperate need of support.

One long-term Tent City resident, who asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns and will be referred to as S in this article, said that there have been at least six major fires at the encampment since the start of the winter, in addition to many more small blazes.

He said that while it is well known that it is against the rules to light a fire at the encampment, people are wet, cold and desperate.

“People are trying to follow the rules, but they need heat,” said S.

S said that he has lost multiple friends and neighbours to the cold and has helped to care for many others with burn injuries over the past seven years that he has been experiencing homelessness.

Many of the fires at Tent City are caused by candles being used inside shelters as a means to stay warm, explained S.

A few days before speaking with Capital News, S himself had been involved in a blaze that had been started unintentionally by his neighbour. The fire started in the middle of the night when a candle in his neighbour’s tent lit their shelter on fire. The blaze quickly spread through the nylon and tarp shelter before spreading to S’ site. He said that while everyone escaped without major injury, his hands were scalded when he tried to rescue his cooler, which holds all of his food, from melting.

He said that if fire extinguishers had been made available, it would have helped to extinguish the blaze quickly and safely. He said that having fire extinguishers on hand would make the seemingly inevitable fires safer for everyone.

There is also no running water at Tent City during the winter, which makes managing fire more difficult. Additionally, most residents at the encampment do not have a cell phone, making it difficult to contact the fire department in the event of a fire, explained S.

“The thing is, you’ve got to stay warm. Without heat you’re not going to survive outside,” said S.

Erica Stewart, a Tent City resident and advocate for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness has also spoken out in favour of providing the city-maintained encampment with extinguishers. She said that she has had to rescue multiple people from burning tents during her time at the encampment.

Stewart said that every night that she goes to sleep she worries that her tent may light on fire from her own candles or as a result of a nearby out-of-control blaze.

In Kelowna, all people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are required to sleep at Tent City. Currently, there are more than 100 people living in close quarters at the city-maintained site.

Shelter space in Kelowna is typically at or near capacity. The Journey Home online dashboard provides a real-time look at bed availability in Kelowna. However, despite the potential for vacancy at shelters, many Tent City residents are not welcome at or able to use the organizations and resources as a result of past disputes.

In anticipation of the cold snap, bylaw officers and the fire department worked to educate Tent City residents about fire safety and reorganized the encampment to accommodate for fire-safe spacing between tents.

“We’ve got to find the balance between being too cold and fire,” said the City of Kelowna’s Fire Prevention Officer, Paul Johnson.

He said that presently, the fire department is “exploring everything” to keep Tent City residents safe this winter.

Johnson could not comment on whether providing Tent City residents with fire extinguishers is something that is feasible in the near future.

Capital News has also reached out to the City of Kelowna for comment on providing Tent City with fire extinguishers and will update this article as more information becomes available.

The city does provide Kelowna’s unsheltered residents with additional warming measures during the winter months, including busses.

S also wants to thank the community for the abundant donations of food and clothing that have helped him and his friends stay warm and fed this winter.

READ MORE: 3 blazes in a week at Kelowna’s Tent City has residents calling for extinguishers

Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

I'm a reporter in the beginning stages of my career. I joined the team at Capital News in November 2021...
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