Burning issue: Fires at homeless camp worrisome for nearby business

Burning issue: Fires at homeless camp worrisome for nearby business

‘This is a huge safety concern to our staff’s well-being as well as the businesses in (the) surrounding area,’ says company official

The manager of a local business says they’re worried about open fires being used by the homeless community in Barrie and are voicing their concern with city officials. 

One specific case is the homeless camp on Victoria Street, near Anne Street South and not far from the city’s downtown.

“Our concerns with the fires are that the homeless are having inside their tents while using narcotics, as well as the risk of an out-of-control fire being within 50 feet of a facility that has propane and oxygen tanks stored in their yard,” Christine Olds, a manager at Division 15 Plumbing and Mechanical Inc., told BarrieToday.

The company is located on John Street and a large Victoria Street homeless encampment is situated behind the business among a stand of large trees.

“This is a huge safety concern to our staff’s well-being as well as the businesses in (the) surrounding the area,” she said.

Next door sits Linde Canada Inc., formerly Praxair, an industrial gas supply company which handles volatile products such as welding gases.

“The homeless have every right to do whatever they please without any implications. However, tax-paying residents can be charged (or) arrested left, right and centre when it comes to abiding by the laws,” Olds said. “How is that just?”

According to the city’s bylaws, residents must meet the requirements in the open-air fires bylaw in order to obtain an open-air burning permit.

The city describes open-air burning on its website as “a fire in any open place or area which is not contained or enclosed, for the purpose of burning branches, brush, clean wood, and clean wood byproducts. This includes agricultural fires, and campfires.”

These rules state the fire must not be larger than one cubic metre in size, must be kept at least 15 metres from any dwelling, structure or other combustible material, and is only permitted to burn during daylight hours.

The law requires the burning of dry, clean wood only. Burning of yard waste is not permitted and there is to be no burning when wind speed is greater than 20 kilometres per hour, when rain or fog is present, or when a fire ban is in place.

Olds says she has reached out to different agencies and city staff about the issue, “but continue to get the standard answer.

“They need to catch the individuals having a fire before they can take any action,” she told BarrieToday.

Barrie Fire and Emergency Service (BFES) says it has attended the Victoria Street site in question and, based on the circumstances during those visits, they determined the fuel load present has a low risk of an extension of the fire to the propane and welding gas facility, given the “clear distance” between the location of the homeless encampment and the gas supply facility.

“Open flames and propane tanks are conditions sometimes present in encampments, which can create health and safety concerns for individuals living unhoused as well as members of the public in the immediate area, depending on the specific situation,” deputy fire chief Carrie Clark said Wednesday afternoon.

BFES has held information sessions for community organizations to provide support services to the local homeless community, which included a demonstration of the risk associated with open fires.

“In addition, staff have attended this site to educate the individuals present about fire risks and the provisions within the city’s bylaws,” Clark added.

“The municipality’s approach to these situations has been impacted by Ontario court decisions, and is reviewed on a case-by-case basis considering the availability of housing or shelter, as well as risks to individuals living unhoused and the broader community,” she said.

A recent legal battle is also changing the landscape and court decisions that relate to attempts to address panhandling and homeless encampments, including here in Barrie.

The city hosted a town hall meeting Monday night, which included Mayor Alex Nuttall along with Coun. Craig Nixon and city police officials, to discuss various concerns of residents in Ward 2, which includes the downtown area.

The burning issue was raised at the meeting by Olds, along with other concerned people, she said. Olds said they have been trying to draw attention to their concerns for more than a year.

“There’s many various organizations, service partners, as well as enforcement staff, who are continually monitoring it,” Nixon told BarrieToday on Wednesday. “But if any citizen has specific concerns about a specific incident, then they need to call Barrie Fire … who will come over and investigate and do what they need to do.”

There are several encampments situated around Barrie.

In the early morning hours of April 4, Barrie firefighters responded to a blaze in a small camper trailer in the area of Victoria and Anne Street, not far from Dyments Pond Park. It was quickly extinguished and no one was inside, but the blaze was fuelled by a lot of combustibles, according to a Barrie Fire official. 

In mid-March, a fire at a homeless encampment near Bayfield Street shut down the on-ramps to Highway 400. No one was injured. 

On Feb. 7, emergency crews also responded to a blaze at a temporary shelter on a vacant lot between Bradford Street and Lakeshore Drive. No one was scene when crews arrived and no injuries were reported. 

There have also been fatal fires at homeless encampments in the city.

In June 2022, first-responders discovered a body inside a structure at Milligan’s Pond, near downtown Barrie.

On Feb. 8, 2022, a man was airlifted to the Toronto burn centre following a fire in a small wooded area near Anne Street. He died several days later.

Burning issue: Fires at homeless camp worrisome for nearby business
In this file photo, Barrie Fire crews douse a large blaze near the southbound on-ramp to Highway 400 at Bayfield Street in Barrie on March 13. | Michael Chorney/At the Scene Photography