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City renews safety concerns in Oppenheimer Park after fires sparked by propane heaters

City of Vancouver

With the weather turning colder, the City of Vancouver is renewing its safety concerns about Oppenheimer Park after two fires sparked by propane heaters and stoves.

The city said Friday that campers who have been sleeping in the Downtown Eastside park have been defying a fire chief’s order in place since February that prohibits the devices, putting people in and around the park at risk.

Photos shared by the city show the destruction caused by the two fires, which burned through tents in the makeshift homeless camp that has been standing since last year.

READ MORE: Vancouver council approves plan to address Oppenheimer Park homeless camp

In addition to using those devices, the city says campers have also tried to tap into underground electrical cables to power electric heaters, which also carries a risk of injury or death.

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Sandra Singh, the city’s general manager of arts, culture and community services, said work is being done to connect campers to shelters and housing while addressing their needs within the park itself.

“We’re encouraging people to comply with the fire chief’s order and determine what we can do to support people,” she said.

Click to play video: 'City to address Oppenheimer Park homeless camp' City to address Oppenheimer Park homeless camp
City to address Oppenheimer Park homeless camp – Oct 24, 2019

A spokesperson for the Vancouver Fire Department could not provide immediate comment Friday.

The city said it opens free warming centres, including one a block away from Oppenheimer at Powell Street Getaway, when temperatures hit -5 degrees Celsius or below.

Singh said efforts are being made to open nearby warming centres at temperatures higher than that threshold in order to help more campers.

READ MORE: Park Board votes for ‘collaborative’ decampment of Oppenheimer Park, but no injunction

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“We don’t want people to have to wait until it gets that cold,” she said. “They’re not shelters, but they allow people to come in from the cold weather and get warm.”

Temperatures have warmed slightly since hitting bitter lows in late November, prompting the city to open its warming shelters.

The city said the Powell Street Getaway centre was well attended last Friday night, with more than 110 people visiting.

Advocates have repeatedly called for a warming tent to be installed in the park, complete with propane-powered heaters.

Click to play video: 'Shooting of woman boosts calls for action on Oppenheimer Park tent city' Shooting of woman boosts calls for action on Oppenheimer Park tent city
Shooting of woman boosts calls for action on Oppenheimer Park tent city – Oct 28, 2019

But the city points to the explosion that took place in March at the Anita Place encampment in Maple Ridge, which was sparked through attempts to siphon gas from the propane tank.

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Roughly 50 people are still living in the park after dozens were connected to housing earlier this year.

Since that operation, the city and the Vancouver Park Board have been debating how to fully clear Oppenheimer and return it to public use.

READ MORE: Police concerned over increased weapons, gang activity in Oppenheimer Park

The board, which has jurisdiction over the park, has refused to seek an injunction to clear the campers, and instead called for a multi-jurisdictional homelessness task force.

In October, city council voted for a “collaborative decampment” plan “with options that are better for people dealing with homelessness in parks than their current situation.”

The city says its outreach teams are continuing to try to connect campers with shelters and housing, while further attempting to understand their needs if they decide to stay in the park.

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