There have been 11 encampment fires in Toronto since Friday but fire officials say they are not the work of a serial arsonist.
Toronto Acting Fire Chief Jim Jessop said on Wednesday that the causes of the fires are varied and ignition sources include everything from candles, cigarettes, lighters and open flames.
Some have been intentionally set, he said. Many are still under investigation.
“There is no indication whatsoever from Toronto Fire Services’ perspective that this significant rise in fires is attributed to — for lack of a better word — a serial arsonist or a person or a group of persons intentionally setting fires,” Jessop told CBC Toronto.
Jessop said Toronto firefighters have been called to 241 fires at encampments so far this year, a number that represents a 243 per cent increase over this time last year.
“Encampment fires have been significantly on the rise and they are a serious concern to Toronto Fire Services right now,” Jessop said. “It seems like every night we are attending two or three.”
Jessop said the number is disturbing and the fires themselves pose a serious risk to people living in the encampments as well as to firefighters trying to extinguish the blazes, police officers who come to the scene and paramedics who assess people for injuries.
When crews respond, there is concern that fires will spread and set off any tanks or metal cylinders containing compressed gas.
“The numbers are staggering. They’re extremely concerning. Living out in these condition is unsafe,” he said.
The most recent encampment fires happened near 701 Fleet Street. Fire crews were called to the area, between Garrison Road and Fort York Boulevard, at about 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday for a significant blaze and again at about 3:15 a.m. on Wednesday. These were separate fires, he said.
The one early Wednesday seriously injured a man in his 40s. Paramedics took him to a burn centre, according to Sandra McLeod, deputy commander for Toronto Paramedic Services.
Fire crews pulled out four 18-kilogram propane tanks out of the encampment on Wednesday morning, he added.
“Unfortunately, due to the significant damage last night that was caused and was obviously seen, cause has been classified as undetermined. We just can’t pinpoint the ignition source,” Jessop said.
City crews cleared debris from the site on Wednesday.
Toronto Fire has done safety audits of large encampments
After a large fire in an encampment at Lamport Stadium that seriously injured a person on Dec. 8, Toronto Fire decided to increase the number of firefighters dispatched to any encampment fire.
Toronto Fire has also done safety audits of the large encampments, and its operations crews are mapping out the nearest hydrants, possible concerns about vehicle access and any specific hazards. That information will be relayed to firefighters when they are dispatched, he said.
At a city hall briefing on Wednesday, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said there is no indication that any of the fires are connected and that means they are all considered individual events.
“We are fully engaged in all of them. Our investigation teams investigate actively each of the encampment fires,” Pegg told reporters.
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of the city’s shelter support and housing administration division, said its Streets to Homes staff spoke to everyone at the Fort York encampment on Tuesday night, and everyone who remained on the scene following the fire accepted referrals to indoor services.
“We were able to support all of the people there to come inside where it is warmer and also safer,” Bedard said.
Encampment resident thinks arsonist is responsible
But not everybody agrees with the official assessment of the cause of the fires.
Jimmie Tierney, who used to live an encampment at HTO Park on Queen Quay West, said he believes a fire on the night of Dec. 5 in that encampment was deliberately set, adding it burned the insulated foam dome of his neighbour.
Tierney now lives in a shelter hotel.
“I was actually in my little dome. And I was sleeping and I heard some noise. I heard people walking by. So I woke up, then about 10 seconds later and I heard the gentlemen behind me. They set his dome on fire,” he said.
“I saw all these red flames. I kicked the door off because he was screaming and yelling, ‘Get out get out, get out.’ I just kicked the door off. I was in my bare feet. His dome was fully engulfed in flames. The flames were like six feet tall.”
Tierney said he was devastated and believes he would have burned to death if it hadn’t been for his neighbour. He thinks his neighbour was targeted.
“I think we have an arsonist running around,” he said.”There are too many unusual fires popping up.”
He said there have been “a lot of unusual people” around and they have caught them going through their stuff when no one is around.
The cause of the fire is undetermined.