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Kingston encampments see rash of fire safety issues as city prepares for daytime camping ban

Last week, the City of Kingston put out several statements regarding fire safety at the Belle Park Encampment.

Kingston Fire & Rescue gave out a number of Immediate Threat to Life (ITL) notices at Belle Park last week, including issuing four notices in just one day on March 21 for infractions including open air flames within tents.

On Friday night Kingston Fire & Rescue issued yet another ITL notice, this time with three people being transported to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Fire crews removed a ‘homemade appliance’ that was being used to burn charcoal inside a tent, and Chief Fire Prevention Officer Ted Posadowski said they encountered one individual who was unconcsious and another having seizures from inhaling the fumes.

“Burning charcoal produces large amounts of carbon monoxide and can be extremely dangerous,” Posadowski said.

“This latest incident escalates the severity of the situation there and brings greater attention to the risks that individuals in the encampment are taking. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer that can easily result in death, and we were fortunate that this latest incident did not result in that.”

Statements like that one were not commonplace before the last few weeks, when after three tent fires in early February statements notifying of fire safety issues at encampments began flowing in on a regular basis, culminating with at least four separate media releases from the city last week.

The City of Kingston says they’ve recently been working so closely with Fire & Rescue because there’s been a dramatic increase in both the number of fires and the amount of combustible materials in and around tents and structures.

Ted Posadowski said that responses in the King’s Town District gave gone up a staggering 689% since 2018.

He says that Fire and Rescue does not have to “wait for something to happen to take action” and is instead being proactive.

“That year [2018] crews responded to 139 incidents. In 2023, the number had jumped to more than a thousand,” Posadowski said.

“If we identify a fire safety risk somewhere in the community, we do everything possible to avoid a fatality.”

The timing of the sudden, dramatic increase in statements regarding fire safety violations in encampments has some skeptical that there has been an increase in incidents at all.

Matt Silburn, an organizer with Mutual Aid Katarokwi-Kingston (MAKK), says it’s only evident that responses to fire safety violations have increased, and it’s unclear if actual violations have increased the way the City of Kingston has claimed.

He says it seems like there’s an effort to highlight safety issues within the encampments to provide stronger justification for the daytime camping ban that is soon to take effect in city parks.

“There’s an increase in the response to it and I think that’s sort of motivated to justify their ruling,” Silburn said.

“If they really cared about people’s fire safety why did they confiscate one of the military tents from homeless youth? We’re not going to come claim that those military tents are fireproof but they certainly are safer and more resistant than the nylon tents that not only are other people living in, but the city themselves has sort of said that they will be distributing to people.”

Silburn says the city is using concerns around fire safety as a guise that their efforts are actually for the benefit of encampment residents, meanwhile ignoring the other pressing concerns these residents are faced with.

“Fire frankly isn’t the only threat to people’s lives there, exposure to cold is is a real thing but also being close to the life-saving services provided at the ICH,” Silburn said.

“The clear, sort of, consequence of the city’s policy is that people are going to move deeper into the woods, farther away from the life-saving services at ICH. If the city really wants people out of the park they should be providing housing.”

MAKK said in a statement that the city has “deliberately misinterpreted” Justice Iain Carter’s verdict that encampment evictions are unconstitutional.

Carter said he didn’t have specific data detailing daytime shelter options, so he ordered that an exception be read into the bylaw that allows an exception for homeless persons camping an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise but did not rule specifically on daytime camping.

The City of Kingston has taken this as a green light to enforcing a camping prohibition in city parks during the day.

Lawyers from the Kingston Community Legal Clinic who are representing the campers have not responded to request for comment, but have noted that the recent Final Report of the Federal Housing Advocate’s Review of Encampments provides encouragement due to the inclusion of multiple action points for municipalities dealing with encampments, and they are considering their next options.

The city intends to begin enforcing the daytime camping ban on April 2nd.

The city notes that for people sheltering in the park, and those affected by these fires and ITL notices, support services, including storage options for belongings, shelter space and transportation, are available.

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporterhttp://ygknews.ca
Born and raised in Whitby, Ontario, Owen has been living in Kingston for about three years after starting the band Willy Nilly. Prior to that he worked at CKLB radio in Yellowknife and completed studies in Niagara College's Broadcasting program.

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