MAPLE RIDGE, B.C. — Leaning on a cart filled with his belongings, John Newton said he wasn’t sure where he is going to live now that his homeless camp in Maple Ridge, B.C., has been evacuated.
Newton, 28, said he was the last resident to leave “Anita Camp,” after police and firefighters taped off the area and enforced an evacuation ordered on Saturday.
“I’ve got nowhere else to go. That’s why I’m here in the first place,” he said, adding he has lived in the camp for almost a year and a half.
The provincial fire commissioner ordered the evacuation at the request of the city’s fire chief, after three fires in the camp in just two days this week exploded propane cylinders and threatened the safety of residents.
Newton said the three recent blazes followed several others at the camp that seem to have increased in severity, beginning with one in December that injured his wife.
Any fires before that were minor, but he said one this week destroyed about a quarter of the camp.
“When the one tank exploded, I actually felt the shockwave from it. It flew me back a couple of feet in my tent. My wife was in tears, terrified,” Newton said.
Anita Place formed nearly two years ago as a protest over unaffordable housing, as well as the closure of a busy Maple Ridge shelter.
Since the camp’s formation, residents have successfully defeated two legal actions to evict them.
The City of Maple Ridge said in a statement the evacuation order was issued due to the risk of explosion and imminent danger to life.
Multiple propane cylinders were found in the remains of burned structures and some of them had exploded from the heat, but luckily no one was injured, the city said.
On Saturday, the city said all displaced residents would be provided with “meals and a warm and safe place to sleep,” and that an emergency reception centre had been set up to assess their needs.
Meantime, provincial Housing Minister Selina Robinson said the province had activated emergency social services to provide “significant support” to affected campers.
“The safety of the community, and the residents being evacuated, is our immediate focus,” Robinson said in a statement.
“In the longer term, this reinforces the need to act quickly and build more supportive housing in Maple Ridge.”
Dozens of the camp’s former residents now live in modular housing opened by the province several months ago, she said.
Newton said he would live in public housing if that was an option.
The B.C. Supreme Court granted the city an injunction last month to remove heaters and stoves because they pose a fire risk.
Last week, police arrested several people at the site as officers worked with firefighters to clear the encampment of electrical connections and fire accelerants, which were barred by the court order.
Pivot Legal Society, which represents the tent city, has been critical of what it calls “heavy-handed” enforcement of the court order.
It said in a tweet that the three recent fires started after power was shut off at the camp, forcing residents to seek unsafe sources of heat.
Before then, the society said there had been six fires in 21 months at the camp.
Some neighbours said they were relieved to see the evacuation order enforced.
Paul Meers, who lives in an apartment down the street, said “everyone wants to see (campers) succeed in life,” but that it was hard to have sympathy when his building was shaking from the explosions.