Three people escaped tent fire at downtown Halifax homeless encampment: volunteer

Click to play video: 'Community members stepping up to keep Grand Parade tenters safe'
Community members stepping up to keep Grand Parade tenters safe
As Halifax backs down on its call for tenters to vacate Grand Parade, community members are stepping up. Two people have moved into the encampment with the goal of ensuring those sleeping rough are kept warm and safe. Skye Bryden-Blom reports. – Nov 23, 2023

Three residents of a tent that caught fire at a downtown Halifax encampment narrowly escaped, said the volunteer who responded to the blaze.

No injuries were reported in the Saturday morning fire at the Grand Parade, said the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services.

About 20 people experiencing homelessness are living in tents and ice-fishing shelters at the square, directly across from Halifax City Hall.

Steve Wilsack, a volunteer who has spent weeks supporting the encampment’s residents, said he was at the city square when the three people staying in the tent that caught fire “narrowly escaped.”

Wilsack said he doused the fire with an extinguisher before it reached a nearby propane tank. Halifax firefighters arrived and fully extinguished the blaze.

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“This was a close call,” he said, adding that it could have resulted in an explosion. With scarce access to electricity, some people living outside rely on heaters that use propane for warmth as the temperature dips.

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The tent that caught fire suffered extensive damage.

“Everything in the tent is unusable or destroyed. Everything will have to be thrown away,” Wilsack said.

Steven Turner, with the city’s fire department, said the cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Deputy Fire Chief David Meldrum said in an email last week that city staff are “working on written guidance for residents who are living in tents and other ad-hoc shelters.”

The Grand Parade is one of more than 30 homeless encampment sites recorded across the Halifax Regional Municipality.

As of last week, the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia says 1,068 people in the Halifax Regional Municipality have self-identified as being actively homeless.

Wilsack and his colleague Matthew Grant have collected and distributed sleeping mats, army surplus jackets, rain gear and tarps, and built a makeshift warming centre with a small charcoal stove at the Grand Parade site.

With support from Good Samaritans in the community, Wilsack says he has also purchased and distributed 20 ice-fishing tents, which are sturdier and stay drier than typical camping tents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2023.

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