In winter, the homeless often face a painful choice: fire or frostbite
On a freezing December morning, a homeless man sifts through charred cushions and melted tarpaulins, seeking to salvage what he can of what remains of his possessions.
Blackened and scorched, they lie sprawled on the muddy banks of the Thames River in London, Ontario, as the smell of burnt plastic is still heavy in the freezing air.
He tosses aside a burnt propane burner, likely the source of the flames that incinerated his tent and turned his sleeping bag and much of his spare clothes into a pile of burnt rags.
It’s a scene that’s becoming increasingly common across the country as rising rents, inflexible inflation and limited shelter capacity force more people to sleep outside with nothing but a bag of sleeping and a fire to keep warm, which increases the risk of injury and keeps local firefighters on their toes.
A pan-Canadian problem
« I’ve seen it grow exponentially, » London Fire Service platoon leader Kirk Loveland said of the number of rough sleepers in the city.
« I can go by some of our very busy engine companies and how many alarms they respond to compared to years ago – 10 times a day on these types of alarms, whether people on the street, downstairs and off, whatever the format. »
London is not the only city struggling with this problem. Regina, Winnipeg and Kitchener-Waterloo have all recently faced fires in homeless encampments. No one was injured in these cases.
But in Toronto, a recent campfire left a man with life-threatening burns to 90% of his body. And in Edmonton, a man died last week after a propane tank exploded at a homeless encampment. It was the fifth such fire death this year in Edmonton, and a problem that is now so widespread that the city’s fire chief has called the fires his top concern.
Clandestine fires increase the danger
Many Canadian cities have bylaws against open fires in urban areas, but the same rules aimed at reducing the risk of fire inside a city also require rough sleepers to hide which is often their greatest source of winter heat.
To cover their tracks, homeless people sometimes try to hide evidence of the fire before turning in for the night, or dim the flames themselves, said Carlos Buschinelli, outreach services manager for London Cares , a homeless support agency.
« The safest way to do that is to enclose that open burning, maybe in their tent or whatever structure they have, » he said.
« Unfortunately, tent and sleeping bag materials are extremely flammable. »
Fire Safety Manual for Homeless Encampments
These powder keg conditions are part of the reason Sarah Rehou, who was a research coordinator in the burn unit at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, began to see a steady stream of homeless people with burns during the pandemic.
« We’ve seen an increase over the last two years because of COVID, just because there were more people sleeping rough, » she said. « There was a lack of places in shelters, people were turned away. Also, people didn’t always want to sleep inside because of COVID. »
The sudden increase in burns among homeless people prompted researchers from Sunnybrook and the University of Toronto to follow up on a 2018 Ontario coroner’s inquest into the death of Grant Faulkner. The 49-year-old homeless man died when his makeshift shelter caught fire one freezing night in January 2015.
One of the specific recommendations was to recruit homeless people themselves to help create a safety manual that would cover specific situations in camp living, which the researchers did.
« It’s literally a matter of life or death, » she said. « Unfortunately, those recommendations were never developed and that’s where this handbook comes from. »
The result was a laminated, spiral-bound book, about 11 pages, full of advice on how to start a fire safely when you’re forced to sleep outside. CBC News has included the manual at the bottom of this article.
Rehou said that once developed, the researchers held training sessions with outreach workers and groups of rough sleepers and the results were almost immediate.
« Anecdotally, we know it works. We know the training works, » she said, noting that one of the trained groups used a fire blanket to successfully smother the flames in a camp.
“There is definitely a second part to this and that is to study it scientifically to see if this manual has made any difference.”
The handbook has already been distributed to a number of agencies in London which help homeless people.
« We’ll take anything if it helps, » Buscanelli said. « We can use it, that’s for sure. »