A tent fire at a homeless encampment on Garden Street in St. John injured one man with minor injuries related to smoke inhalation, according to Staff Sgt. Sean Rocca of the St. John Police.
Roca said the call came in at 7:13 a.m. Friday and St. John Fire responded. Paramedics treated a 36-year-old man at the scene but he was not taken to hospital.
It is not clear how the fire started. Roca said the fire is still under investigation.
According to Melanie Vator, executive director of Fresh Start Services for Women, tent sites are particularly vulnerable to fires, and several tents caught fire last year as well.
As cold weather approaches, people living in tents often turn to fires as their only means of staying warm, she said. But the tents are not flame retardant or resistant so using fire is dangerous, she said.
“Those are real risks that are coming and will increase as the weather continues to cool,” Votour said.
Her organization tries to help the homeless with sleeping bags, tents, tarps and hand and toe warmers. She said while their long-term goal is to reduce the number of people living in tents or on the streets in St. John, in the short term, they try to reduce the risks they face in the winter.
Wattor said tent fires are not new to St. John. She said there were no injuries a week last year and one serious incident that left one person with burns on their legs and several others suffering from smoke inhalation.
In January of this year, a fire at a tent camp in Fredericton destroyed three tents and left five people with all their belongings. The fire, which was started by a propane heater, prompted Fredericton police to encourage people living in the encampment to seek warmth in shelters.
While the dangers of fire and heaters are serious, Vautour said so are the dangers of exposure to the cold.
Cold weather increases the risk of frostbite and infection, she said. And she has seen cases of severe frostbite in some clients.
Between fire and frost, she said her organization saw more than 10 of their clients injured last year. She said this does not include what other agencies may have seen.
“There’s a lot of concern for us for individuals sleeping outside,” Votour said. “That’s really what drives us to push forward and find solutions to keep people safe and adequately housed, which of course, as everyone knows, is a challenge right now.”