Concern is growing for Nanaimo, B.C., residents after a string of suspicious fires have ignited recently.
On Saturday, a fire at a condo building on Prideaux Street displaced about 20 residents. A crematorium also sustained smoke damage after a fire broke out behind it and a few days ago, a dental office was gutted by flames.
Kevan Shaw with the Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association said this cannot continue to happen.
“We are seeing way too many fires and it’s all because of mentally ill and drug-addicted people that really need complex care facilities. They cannot be left on their own and on the street,” he said.
“We are even asking for the provincial and federal governments to repeal their decriminalization because this pilot project is just not working.”
B.C.’s exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act took effect on Jan. 31, allowing adults to possess small amounts of certain drugs — opioids, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA — for personal use.
Nanaimo Fire Chief Tim Doyle said in reference to the condo fire, residents reported an unhoused person or people in the area at the time the blaze broke out.
“It is suspicious,” he said.
Resident Christine Whitelaw said they were awakened at 6:30 a.m. by the fire alarm and heard people yelling on the street and blowing their horns, warning people to get out of the building.
Within minutes the fire department arrived on the scene.
“By the time I got down to the second floor of the building, there was smoke in the stairwell,” Whitelaw told Global News.
“When I came around the corner of the building onto the parking lot, I saw the flames leaping three storeys high.”
Whitelaw said the fire was started in a recycling bin that was against the wall of the building.
“In the last few months we’ve had four fires,” Whitelaw added. “Four fires. We have had a fire set right at our front door, the newspapers were set on fire. We don’t know if that was deliberate or accidental.”
She said a fire was also set in a pizza box close to the recycling area. Another fire was set in and destroyed a car.
“That was bad enough but now our lives are threatened,” she said. “Our building went up in flames, that is just intolerable.”
Whitelaw said they don’t know when they will be allowed back to their home but three of the units that were badly damaged will need extensive restoration work.
Advocates say there is no evidence that unhoused people are to blame for the fires.
Sara Edmondson, the outreach coordinator for the Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users (NANDU) told Global News, “I think it’s really unfair that the homeless community gets blamed for so much.”
Edmondson added that the unhoused population needs support more now than ever.
“It makes them look worse and feel down, more than they already are,” she said.
“They need to be brought up and made to feel like they’re actually part of the community instead of a burden on it.”