The City of Nanaimo is dismantling the homeless encampment on Wesley Street downtown after a fire there this afternoon.
Crews were called out at about 12:15 p.m. after a fire “fully destroyed multiple tents and triggered a number of explosions of propane tanks,” noted a city press release.
Nanaimo Fire Rescue crews extinguished the blaze and the 400 block of Wesley Street is “fully evacuated” and closed to the public, the city said.
Tim Doyle, Nanaimo Fire Rescue deputy chief, said in an interview at the scene that an estimated four to six tents went up in flames in the fire which broke out next to a staircase beside the Franklyn Street gym. The building suffered only minor damage because of a metal fence the city had installed to keep the encampment tents separated from the structure.
Staff in the city’s services and resource centre were evacuated temporarily.
Doyle said bylaws officers were the first city staff on the scene of the fire and helped evacuate people from the area and kept things calm until Nanaimo Fire Rescue arrived.
“Bylaws officers and firefighters worked together to tactically evacuate all the tent residents on Wesley Street,” Doyle said. “The 400 block of Wesley Street is currently evacuated and will remain closed to the public. Agencies are currently in the process of de-camping the residents, closing the site and making it safe again.”
Outreach workers arrived with pizzas for the estimated 60 residents who were living in the encampment. Residents were led into the camp by RCMP officers who were brought in to keep the peace, and given approximately 10 to 15 minutes to pack up their belongings and vacate the area. Doyle did not have word about where the camp residents would be going.
“The city is in contact with provincial partners who have mobilized to the site to support residents,” he said. “Agencies are working on it to help support the people who are displaced from the fire.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, but the suspected cause is a propane tank that caught on fire, possibly due to a malfunction. No one was reported injured in the ensuing blaze.
After the fire was brought under control, firefighters went through tents to remove “alternative” heating sources, which included a variety of devices that included heating units fueled by propane and fireplaces fuelled with wood and wood pellets and to ensure there was no one unaccounted for in the tents.
A backhoe was used to clear debris from the fire.
The Wesley Street encampment is closed indefinitely for safety reasons.
“We have a lot of tents in close proximity using alternative heating sources with the weather getting cooler and wetter…” Doyle said. “Right now Wesley Street’s being closed down. I can’t speak to what’s going to happen in the near future with that, but what I can say is with the tents in such close proximity, cold weather, wet weather persisting through the winter and alternative heating sources being used, it does set the stage for ongoing dangerous conditions in there.”
Doyle said there had recently been multiple fires that had occurred in the camp, which posed a danger to residents and the neighbourhood.