Fire broke out in a Chilliwack homeless camp Wednesday night displacing more than 20 people living in tents under the Yale Road overpass.
The fire started at about around 6 p.m., as flames shot into the air from the camp on Railway Avenue.
Soon after the blaze erupted, people were scrambling out of the many tents and witnesses reported hearing loud popping noises. Within the hour, emergency service agencies, outreach workers and volunteers were heading to the scene to respond to the disaster, with food and clothing donations.
Don Armstrong, Emergency Disaster Services Coordinator for the Salvation Army, said he grabbed the Homeless Outreach Worker Scott and rushed to the fire scene. They met with the displaced folks inside the nearby McDonald’s, where they received “shelter, comfort, and ongoing support” while discussing how to find suitable, permanent housing.
“People were bringing sleeping bags, food and clothes. But in some ways it’s a hindrance. Instead of taking them to the shelter, people were giving them tents and more so they just start over again. If people want to be nice and to help, they should bring the items for donation to the Sally Ann.”
Ruth and Naomi’s Mission and Cyrus Centre also are providing emergency shelter spaces and are accepting donations. No one is being turned away.
“I have to say that I am proud of this community tonight,” posted Serene Mumford-Cerqueira, a member of SPARKS, offering “huge kudos” to Sally Ann, Griffin, McDonald’s, City of Chilliwack, RCMP and more.
She said some “awesome” folks gave from their hearts and filled a vehicle with warm clothing and other donations.
“Thanks to the good people from the Vineyard for your contributions, just wonderful,” she said. “Teamwork!”
The 30-bed temporary shelter in the Sally Ann soup kitchen was opened up extra early that night to provide a safe warm place for the victims.
“We looked after them,” Armstrong said, adding that several found items to wear from the bags of warm clothing that were collected.
One of the homeless campers had a dog, which the Sally Ann was also able to accommodate in the low-barrier shelter so that they didn’t have to be separated. Another was barefoot, but was later given some footwear.
Of the 23 people who went to seek a bed that night in their temporary shelter, six were transported there from the fire-scorched encampment.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz said she headed over to camp as the fire was being extinguished and then over to the Sally Ann to check on the six fire victims in the shelter.
“It was so sad to see people standing on the street in their bare feet, it was 20 below,” she said.
“A few were in pajama bottoms.”
The mayor and council “care deeply” about the city’s most vulnerable, Gaetz said, and they are seeking solutions with the provincial government.
“I’m glad our team has been trying to get them into shelters, and I’m thankful the fire wasn’t worse. It could have had a major catastrophe if the wind had been blowing the other way,” said the Mayor.
The next morning Sally Ann outreach workers worked with the fire victims in the temporary shelter talking about alternatives to living rough outside during the cold snap.
“The Salvation Army is grateful for the support of BC Housing to be able to operate the Temporary Shelter and offer these additional rent subsidies,” said Tim Bohr, community ministries director. Supports from the Sally Ann include: free clothing, winter jackets, boots, toiletries, and blankets; chaplaincy and counselling; referrals and advocacy to mental health, addiction, income assistance, and employment services; free bread and produce through The Pantry program; and the regular free lunch in the Soup Kitchen.
“Regardless of the circumstances or challenges, the Salvation Army – Chilliwack remains ready to give hope today to anyone who may need its help,” said Bohr.
There are no reports of injuries from the fire.
The area was secured overnight as firefighters continued to douse hotspots, but the official cause of the fire has not been made public as the investigation continues. Some have said it was started with a candle and propane heater, another said it was arson.
Chilliwack RCMP, bylaw enforcement officers, Griffin Security and emergency services have been trying in earnest for weeks to find a more secure solution for the campers.
Watch www.theprogress.com for updates.
The City of Chilliwack is currently seeking an court injunction to have the homeless camp removed.
Watch www.theprogress.com for updates.
Note: Video by Curtis Kreklau