SURREY — Surrey’s fire chief says while a petition to allow the homeless to use all kinds of tarps on 135A Street is “well-intentioned,” there is “no way we can allow this.”
Chief Len Garis told the Now-Leader the BC Fire Code is “very strict in terms of having open flames or the ability to be living in components that can catch fire” as it relates to people inside tents.
Only fire retardant tarps are allowed, he explained.
“Having any combustible materials that are shielding or covering them, like tarps, they must be fire retardant and flame-proof. I appreciate the comments, but I can’t waive other safety requirements.
“The requirement is bonified and real. It’s for their safety,” he said.
Garis noted there have been some “horrific fires” in the last two years where multiple tents burned now, pointing to Chilliwack as an example.
“We’ve had fires on 135A Street, we’ve had explosions and we’ve had serious injuries,” he said.
On Sept. 19 an explosion caused a tent to go up in flames on 135A Street, injuring a man and woman. The fire department says it may have been started by somebody “processing” drugs.
Garis said that’s just one of many stories.
“There have been others too, in the parks and in the forests. There have been some explosions there…. We find very serious activities taking place in terms of propane cylinders and heating equipment that’s just absolutely frightening in terms of what the potential is.”
Garis said the fire department does visits to 135A Street on a weekly basis and does a walk through for open flames and combustible or otherwise dangerous situations.
When flammable tarps are found, he said they ask people to remove them.
Garis said there is a “movement afoot” for BC Housing to purchase and distribute flame-retardant tarps to correct this issue.
Meantime, Garis said the fire service is trying to help those living on the street.
“We facilitated solar light lights and distributed those so they don’t have to use open flame for lighting. Last winter we did that and we’re doing it again. We also supply hot water bottles for them to keep warm, and blankets as well. We’ve done everything humanly possible… and put a lot of effort in trying to keep them safe.”
For his part, Surrey’s bylaw manager Jas Rehal says the city always uses its discretion when enforcing the tarp rule, “especially in inclement weather.”
“We balance the needs versus the fire risks,” said Rehal.
As rain poured down Wednesday afternoon, a petition was launched urging Surrey’s leaders to allow the homeless along 135A Street to use tarps to keep dry.
“The homeless population on 135A has been subjected to many harsh ‘rules’ or ‘bylaws’ over the last six months,” wrote Pop-Up Soup Kitchen founder Erin Schulte in her change.org petition. “One is that they are not allowed to use any tarp that is not fire-retardant to cover their tents to keep them dry and safe from the elements.
“They already are not allowed to have any type of internal heat source but now all they have is the fly or whatever blankets they have to cover themselves from the rain,” she added.
The same afternoon Schulte launched her petition, Environment Canada issued a rainfall warning, with up to 50 mm of rain expected to fall before the day was out.
“In the last few days alone the rain has been horrific. Everyone is soaked with no way of drying their things. This becomes a health and safety issue as far as people with already suppressed immune systems as well as some elderly that reside on the block. With the weather we are currently experiencing a simple tent and fly are unable to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the elements. This is cruel and unusual punishment in my opinion.”
Schulte urges the City of Surrey and the Surrey Fire Service to temporarily remove the ban “during this rainy, cold and very hard season.”
“Each year that an emergency shelter is put into place we are told that next year there would be housing and here we are yet again facing a long and wet winter with no appropriate housing even close to be made available,” she said. “They deserve to at least be dry.”
Schulte wants all kinds of tarps allowed when it’s raining.
She said people are living in “horrific” condition on 135A Street right now.
“I call this a health and safety issue,” she said. “Getting wet, cold and then sick.”
If regular tarps cannot be allowed, Schulte said the city should cover the cost of the tarps.
“If we are a concerned society then we should be absorbing it somewhere.”
Meanwhile, in a live video posted to her Facebook page, Schulte had a message for Dwayne Johnson. The hollywood star posted to Instragram thanking Mayor Linda Hepner for her hospitality while he was near city hall filming his new movie ‘Skyscraper.’
“Hey Dwayne Johnson, just so you know, we loved having you come to Surrey, but we’re not as good as we make it out to be,” said Schulte. “We put on a good face, we put on some good makeup, we build some beautiful buildings and put up some great structures and pretty up our City Centre, which is where you went. But not two blocks from where you were, there are people on the ground suffering.”