Vancouver fire chief calls for action in Downtown Eastside

Vancouver’s fire chief is calling for action after an explosion and fire in a tent on Main Street Sunday night. Angela Bower has the details.

Vancouver’s fire chief is calling for the city and senior levels of government to act after another encampment-related fire in the Downtown Eastside.

Videos shared online show just how quickly the fire spread after it erupted.

One video shows flames engulfing some tents in the area of Main and Hastings streets Sunday, with the fire quickly spreading to the adjacent building which houses the Imperial — a former events space.

Explosions could also be heard as people in the area yelled out for help.

Multiple propane tanks were found around the tents in the aftermath of the fire, crews say.

One social media post shows the moment a firefighter drags one out into the middle of the street, with people heard yelling for others to stay back.

@brixtrix1_magicplants Fire at Main street and Hastings street Vancouver #brix #CSP #dtes ##fire #firefighter #homelessness ##vancouverfire #vancouverbc #vancouverfiredepartment ? original sound - Brix

Fire Chief Karen Fry is now renewing her calls for action to address safety in encampments.

“It’s a great risk to that whole community. I’m extremely frustrated. We need to do more and, unfortunately, it’s a really fine balancing act between meeting the needs of those that are on the streets but also protecting them … on the streets, protecting the people in the buildings, and protecting our community,” Fry said Monday.

Fry addressed the matter of the propane tanks in a tweet Sunday, writing, “this is not a safe environment for the residents in the area, those living in the tents and the responders.”

Further to this, she said Monday she worries people are hiding propane tanks inside their tents, putting themselves and those in nearby buildings at risk.

Vancouver fire crews say propane tanks were found near tents that went up in flames on East Hastings and Main streets on Sunday, March 19

Vancouver fire crews say propane tanks were found near tents that went up in flames on East Hastings and Main streets on Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Courtesy Twitter/Karen Fry)

“We get there, there are some explosions. There is a fire that’s now impinged from a tent, spread to another tent, and again to a building. [This] causes great concern,” she told reporters.

“We removed several propane tanks, even one that is a 100-pound tank that experienced heavy fire damage.”

‘The risks that we’re seeing in the Downtown Eastside … is untenable’

The fire chief says the presence of propane tanks suggests there is “an open flame” somewhere, posing a real risk to people and buildings.

No injuries were reported as a result of the Sunday fire. However, Fry says this situation has become all too familiar, noting there were “three other tent fires” in the area, some resulting in building damage.

“My greatest concerns when we talk about buildings, the building that was impacted yesterday is not one of our many vulnerable buildings where we have occupants or residentials … this one wasn’t a housing building but it is a building. I’d be really concerned if this happened in the middle of the night and took a bit longer to discover or if occupants were in there,” Fry explained.

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She adds the tents involved in Sunday’s fire were also blocking an entrance and exit to the building, highlighting access issues posed by some structures.

In addition to calling for action, Fry is urging people to adhere to her order, issued last year, which directs the removal of tents and other structures from sidewalks.

“It’s such a balanced approach meeting the needs of the occupants that are unhoused in the Downtown Eastside. We have homelessness and those sheltering outdoors across our city, it is a crisis. But the risks that we’re seeing in the Downtown Eastside, specifically Hastings Street and the areas surrounding that, is untenable,” Fry said, adding the risks apply to the unhoused, the housed, firefighters, and other members of the public.

She admits she’s not trying to solve the homelessness crisis. However, she says something needs to change in Vancouver in order to keep everyone safe.

Fire protection systems designed to stop flames from the inside: Fry

Fry first issued the order for the immediate removal of tents along sections of East Hastings in July 2022.

In the order, Fry signaled the urgent need to accelerate the removal, saying that “should a fire occur in the area in its current condition, it would be catastrophic, putting lives at risk and jeopardizing hundreds of units of much-needed housing.”

On Monday, she noted there had been 370 fires that started in the Hastings Street encampment area since her order was issued.

“What we know about fires that start on the outside is they quickly can spread up to the inside of a building or into the walls. When sprinkler systems and fire protection systems are put inside homes or inside buildings, that is to stop a fire from spreading when it starts on the inside,” Fry explained.

“When you look think about a sprinkler above, it shoots down, it doesn’t stop what’s going on in the walls or in the roof. So many times when a fire starts on the outside, that’s where it spreads — easily to the roofs, to the structure, and up through the walls and to the floors.”

Vancouver firefighters work to put out a blaze in the area of Hastings and Main streets in the Downtown Eastside

Vancouver fire crews battled flames at the building that houses the Imperial on Sunday, March 19, after flames spread from nearby tents in the area of Main and Hastings streets. (Courtesy Twitter/Karen Fry)

Many advocates have criticized the city’s move to clear parts of Hastings Street, noting suitable housing options remain scarce.

Both the city and the Vancouver Police Department’s clearing of tents has also been slammed after officers and residents clashed.

Fry says this is an issue that will require support from everyone.

“Our city needs to continue to remove everything, we need to get all levels of government on this. The people trying to work on housing need to find adequate housing because nobody wants people sheltering outdoors. But sheltering outdoors in this location is not the right place for them to shelter, too many lives are at risk here,” she said.

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