Several people lost their homes and all their belongings after fire tore through a homeless camp under the Osborne Bridge Wednesday morning.
Billy, who has been living under the bridge on and off for two years and didn’t give his last name, said the fire was started by a candle in a nearby tent around 7:30 a.m.
He said it quickly spread to other tents, with 12-foot flames lapping against the bottom of the bridge.
“The whole underneath of this was just one big fireball, it was scary,” he told reporters while assessing the damage after fire crews had put out the fire a little over an hour later.
“We could see the black smoke and when we got out from under the bridge, that’s when we realized the severity of it … you couldn’t see anything it was so thick.”
Billy said he lost everything in the fire, including the tent where lived.
He said there are around 14 people who regularly stay at the camp, and seven people were under the bridge at the time of the fire.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) said one person was assessed on scene, but no other injuries were reported.
The fire caused thick black smoke to billow out from under the bridge, prompting photos and concerned tweets from drivers and residents in the village.
Traffic was reduced to one lane northbound on the bridge as firefighters battled the fire. Traffic had cleared up just before 9 a.m. as emergency responders left the scene.
When the smoke cleared, only one tent remained standing — the home of a 67-year-old woman, who goes by Granny.
Granny, who has been living at the camp for two-and-a-half months, said she was up making coffee when she saw the flames and quickly ran out from under the bridge.
“Barefeet, but I grabbed my boots,” she said of her escape.
Granny described the people living at the camp as tight-knit and said they would likely stick together after the fire.
“Staying together, in numbers, is our security,” she said.
“We all know each other … We take care of each other.”
The incident is once again putting the issue of Winnipeg’s homeless camps at the forefront.
“Sometimes I hear from residents saying ‘could you please just disappear folks, can you get rid of them?'” Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Sherri Rollins said.
“To be clear we’re talking about people that are homeless, so it’s not just getting rid of people, (which) is just not what I am here to do.”
Mainstreet Project currently sends outreach workers to homeless camps to help them access services.
But if people don’t want help, they’re left alone.
“It’s not about ridding the problem, it’s about addressing the problem,” Coun. Rollins said.
End Homelessness Winnipeg says the incident just highlights the need for more low-income housing options in the city.
“We need more affordable and accessible low income housing so that people have permanent places to live and don’t have to live in tents in precarious situations on riverbanks and (in) public spaces,” End Homelessness Winnipeg communications manager, Kris Clemens said.
–With files from Malika Karim and Marney Blunt
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