As the risk of fire grows in the Boundary region so does the problem of transients along the city’s riverfront property.
With at least 10 transient camps scattered along the river front in Grand Forks — and many of them lighting fires at night during a province-wide campfire ban — the problem is a bigger issue than mere homelessness.
And some people have become vocal in council chambers, demanding the city do something about the problem.
At the July 17 committee-of-the-whole meeting, one retired woman took council to task on the issue, noting that a large camp has set up directly across from them and was frequently making a fire, “using drugs” and generally making the riverfront park an unsafe place to be.
She said she had been coming to meetings for five years and had had enough of the city doing nothing about the problem.
“We have been taxpayers all of our lives, now we are in our last years of our lives and we have got to put up with people (camping) directly across the street, and we are afraid to go out at night … it’s not safe,” she said.
“Everybody says they have rights. What about us? Don’t we have any rights? We own that property. You own that property. It’s city property. It’s said all over the Internet that it is a park. Do something. We have been begging this council for years to do something. Please, do something before it is too late for us.”
Mayor Frank Konrad said the current council has not been in office for five years.
“But we are doing the best we can now to make an attempt,” he said. “Unfortunately situations like this are not resolvable within a year or a couple of months. It takes a bigger, collaborative effort.”
“But you can’t do anything to protect the rights of the people of Grand Forks? We could go up in smoke,” said the woman, alluding to the state of emergency the province has declared.
“The realization is there, it’s just what can we do about it,” Konrad replied.
Council grappled with that question on July 17 with Coun. Christine Thompson asking Grand Forks fire chief Dale Heriot about the alarming frequency of homeless people building fires along the river.
She asked the fire chief what he could do to allay the concerns of those people impacted by the dry weather and the fires.
Inside city limits the fire department had the authority to put the fire out, he said.
“We also have the authority to fine them, but it doesn’t do any good because they don’t have any money and we don’t want to put them into jail,” he said.
So the department continually goes out to put out the fires any time of the day or night, Heriot explained.
“One of the issues we have constantly is when they have their camps out along the river, when they have their fires out along the river, whether that is inside the city municipality or Crown (land),” he said.
“My preference is to put the fires out no matter what because everyone sees what is going on in the province with fires.”
Thompson wondered if the people lighting the fires would cease and desist once they were told the implications of lighting a fire.
“I think they understand, but it’s a question of whether they care,” said the chief.
In all the transient camps people have all been told by the RCMP not to light fires, they have been advised of the fire ban, the regulations, the dire nature of the situation right now, but they are still lighting fires, said Heriot.
One man asked why the RCMP could not arrest them.
“They could arrest them, they could charge them, but it seems more likely that the trend in the legal system is to not tie up the legal system with them, so most times it’s not even getting to court,” Heriot noted.
The man suggested there were real threats of vigilante action against the homeless people — as alluded to on social media sites — in order to avoid criminal damage, property loss or life loss.
“So the RCMP can’t go there until something starts to burn?” the man asked.
“If they are on Crown land they have the ability to camp for two weeks, and after two weeks the RCMP can move them,” Heriot pointed out.
One resident who lived next to Riverside Park said for the last eight years they have been stuck with people lighting fires until late every night during the warmer months.
“I have to say that the fire department has been right on it in putting out the fires, but these (homeless) guys don’t care,” he said.
Heriot agreed but said it was not a simple case of securing adequate shelter.
“There is also a mental health issue at work here but something needs to be done, or we are going to have another Cariboo. We are going to have another Cariboo. It’s not a matter of if, it’s just when. It’s just a matter of time,” he warned.
The rate of spread for a fire in the Grand Forks area right now is four times faster than any other area in the Southewast Fire Centre, he said, quoting a provincial figure.
One woman said one solution would be to have a year-round shelter for people, not a seasonal one.
“The reality is if someone has a place to go that has a restroom, that has a roof where they don’t have to light a fire they will go there,” she said.
Konrad had a meeting with Whispers of Hope — who operated the winter shelter. He said there was no guarantee that people would go there if there was a shelter. When one was set up years ago people left and still set up tents, Konrad noted.
The woman suggested more outreach programs to keep people off the streets.
Coun. Chris Hammett called for a partnership between all levels of government and departments, and not download the issue of homelessness on to the city.
“If we don’t work collaboratively we won’t get anywhere,” Konrad agreed. He suggested a city-led task force with many groups involved.
Coun. Julia Butler called for a motion to strike a task force, but city staff asked for some more council discussion on the task force before advancing a motion.
One man asked if the city could declare a mental health emergency to get provincial help on the issue, instead of putting pressure on the homeless people and putting them into an irrational response situation and potentially doing something damaging.
Konrad said the city first needed to get a broader spectrum on what other municipalities were doing to get a handle on trying to solve the problem.
The man replied that waiting for the end of summer or the UBCM meetings in fall to do something would be too late.
“The homeless issue is alike a wildfire in itself, it’s just escalating everywhere at warp speed. Something has to be done. We just can’t keep sitting on our hands and do nothing,” said Konrad.
The issue of a task force was not voted on, but was left for further discussion at an upcoming meeting.