Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Vancouver fire chief’s order to dismantle homeless encampment deemed reasonable: B.C. Supreme Court

By CFF Staff   

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Dec. 14, 2023, Vancouver – The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry’s fire order – which called on the city to demolish a homeless encampment on the Downtown Eastside – was reasonable but procedurally unfair.

Two residents in the encampment, Stephanie Vandenberg and Lenora Blue, asked for a judicial review following Chief Fry’s order, which was put in place on July 25, 2022. A judicial review is a process by which courts make sure that the decisions of administrative bodies are fair, reasonable, and lawful.

Fry had ordered the city to remove tarps, tents, and structures located on a section of East Hastings Street where an increase in people experiencing homelessness were living, noting that if a fire broke out in the encampment, there would be consequences. The materials used for shelter also created a fire hazard, which put encampment occupants, the people in the adjacent buildings, and firefighters at risk. The order was rescinded on April 26, 2023, after city crews and police removed the remaining residents, shelters and belongings.

“The risks to human life and property included blocked exits, obstructed fire department connections, combustible materials accumulating against buildings, unsafe use and storage of propane and flammable liquids, open flames, and continued outdoor fires in the area,” Fry said in an emailed statement to Fire Fighting in Canada. “The decision to mandate the removal of tents, structures, and the relocation of personal belongings was a crucial step toward ensuring the fire and life safety of everyone who works and lives in, and visits the Downtown Eastside.”

The judicial review made by Vandenberg and Blue was moot, the court said, since the order was rescinded, but it still heard the case. In its decision, the court said that while the Fire Order was reasonable, the way in which encampment residents were informed of the order was not adequate.

The court also found that Vandenberg’s Charter rights were engaged, meaning that she has a “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” as stated in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This is a complex situation, and homelessness and housing will continue to be an issue across the country. It is important that fire and life safety of those living in encampments are a priority as well as the added risks to occupants of buildings, community and first responders,” Fry said.

Since the order, improvements have been made to outdoor fire activity and there has been a significant reduction of flammable and combustible materials.

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