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An explosion under the Bathurst Street bridge raises concerns about what’s being done to help the homeless stay warm this winter

A fiery explosion beneath a Toronto bridge, which burned hot under the nighttime sky after propane tanks left in an encampment burst, is raising fears about how to keep the city’s homeless population safely warm this winter — particularly amid a growing squeeze on the shelter system.

The explosion took place late Saturday on Nov. 26. Officials didn’t know how the fire started, describing the setting as an empty encampment. No known injuries were sustained, and though transportation officers were dispatched to be sure, the bridge didn’t appear to suffer damage.

But the fiery scene illustrates a looming tension in Toronto. When winter sets in, those facing homelessness outdoors find ways to stay warm and stave off frostbite, in many cases involving propane heat that city and fire officials have labelled as dangerous. Those officials have urged people to come inside instead — but this year, that’s an especially tough task, with more than 180 people on average turned away each day in October after calling the shelter intake line.

And while a coroner’s inquest years ago recommended the city offer people safer heating sources in the wintertime — as a way to prevent death — it’s a suggestion that hasn’t been heeded.

“The number one thing both to prevent the number of fires, and also to prevent frostbite, hypothermia and freezing deaths, is to make sure people have options to go inside,” said outreach worker Greg Cook. Given the intake data, though, Cook said people will undoubtedly be outside this winter and urged decision-makers to do what they can to mitigate risks.

That could include providing safer alternatives to propane heat, he suggested, pointing to a pilot project run in Winnipeg earlier this year. Per the CBC, the project involved a kind of steel barrel being distributed to encampments, meant to contain the risks from open burning while providing people staying outside with heat. “There’s clearly things the city can do that can prevent severe injury and death, and so it concerns me that I’m not seeing any move in that direction.”

The city’s fire service, meanwhile, did not respond questions about its plans for the winter.

The Bathurst fire wasn’t the first of its kind. The official counts of encampment fires in Toronto include a range of situations, from smaller bonfires labelled as “controlled” to more critical, uncontrolled blazes. The more serious incidents recently have included a 2020 fire near Lamport Stadium, which resulted in several explosions and left one person seriously injured, and an early morning fire the following spring that engulfed a wooden structure in a Corktown park.

When it was extinguished, one man was found dead inside.

Fire is a very real risk in the winter, Cook said, recalling an engulfed tent that critically injured a man named Darren McKim in Nov. 2018. McKim succumbed to his injuries days later.

Nearly eight years ago, the fire death of 49-year-old Grant Faulkner kicked off a broader conversation about safe heat sources in the winter. Faulkner was staying in a plywood structure in a Scarborough field, and died of smoke inhalation after it caught fire on a sub-zero January night. In 2018, a few years after the tragedy, Faulkner’s death was the subject of a coroner’s inquest, and resulted in 35 recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

Those recommendations included the city revising its policies in order to allow the provision of survival gear to people staying outside: items such as sleeping bags, fire retardant blankets and safe heat sources. “While finding appropriate housing is always a high priority, there must be enough flexibility to respond to individual needs and circumstances,” the coroner’s report said.

While the city’s winter shelter plan this year says outreach staff will hand out blankets, sleeping bags and warm winter clothing, it stops short of vowing heat sources. The fire service has also said it doesn’t hand out fire retardant blankets or extinguishers. In recent years, Toronto officials have stated their priority as moving people out of encampments and into indoor shelter.

When people try to survive the winter outdoors, it often turns up in the St. Michael’s Hospital emergency room. Last winter, hospital staff reported a rising number of people arriving in search of shelter and help for cold-weather injuries. At least one person died of hypothermia.

“Every time someone dies of hypothermia, it’s unnecessary,” said Dr. Carolyn Snider, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine. She suggested more advanced planning for when warming centres open based on forecasts of extreme weather, to give those staying on Toronto’s streets more notice. While the ER tries its best to hand out wool socks, hats, gloves and jackets to patients staying outdoors, she said places to properly warm up were critical.

“When it hits the hardest for us is when we feel like (a death) was preventable,” she said.

While Snider believes city staff are working hard to prepare for extreme cold, the absolute number of indoor spaces just wasn’t enough, she said. When ER patients had nowhere to go, she said their staff will try to help by calling the central intake office on that patient’s behalf.

But their tracking suggests the success rate in those cases is less than five per cent. Other downtown hospitals were collecting similar figures, Snider said — with similar outcomes.

“It is very worrisome going into the winter season.”

With files from Star staff


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