Vancouver firefighters answered more fire calls in the first half of the year than any six-month period in its history and are seeing a similar trend with the number of calls to drug overdoses.
Statistics released Wednesday by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services show crews responded to 2,113 fires between January and June, a 31 per cent increase over 1,620 recorded for the same period in 2022.
“Tragically, we have already lost four lives due to fires this year,” said Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for the fire department, in a news release.
“Three of these fatalities involved smokers' materials, highlighting the urgent need for responsible disposal practices and safe use.”
Furthermore, Trudeau added, two of the victims were suspected to be impaired by substances, underlining the risks associated with handling fire-related items when using substances or using substances alone.
Overdose calls reach 4,374
Overdose calls reached 4,374 across the city in the first six months of this year, an increase of 526 over the January-to-June period in 2022.
The statistics do not factor population increase over the past year, but Trudeau said in an interview that the spike in calls to fires and overdoses is far above any influx of newcomers to the city.
The leading cause of fires continues to be what Trudeau described as “carelessly discarded smokers’ materials,” which includes matches, lighters, torches, candles, cigarettes and tools for smoking drugs.
Smoking materials accounted for 57 per cent of fires this year, which has been consistent in recent years, particularly in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels. In May, Assistant Fire Chief Dave Meers elaborated on the cause of fires in SROs when he spoke to city council.
“This is just completely anecdotal, but I think you can almost track it to the inhalation of drugs now, rather than injection,” Meers said.
“So when drug users are heating up their drugs, they’re using butane torches, they're inhaling it. And sometimes they're passing out from the effects of that intoxication and starting a fire in their units. We're seeing that more and more.”
Meers told council at the time that firefighters had already responded to 134 fires at SROs, which is on pace to surpass the 227 recorded for all of 2023. In 2016, firefighters responded to 104 SRO fires over the entire year.
Overdose deaths connected to smoking
Glacier Media reported in 2022 that BC Coroners Service data showed the highest percentage of overdose deaths in the province from 2017 to 2020 was the result of smoking rather than injecting drugs.
In 2020, for example, 56 per cent of deaths were attributed to smoking and 19 per cent to injection drug use. Intranasal consumption, or snorting, accounted for 18 per cent of deaths while oral ingestion was connected to five per cent.
Evidence of multiple modes of consumption were found in 16 per cent of cases.
The percentages, however, could be higher or lower in one or more of the categories because the coroners service was unable to conclusively say in 20 per cent of the cases which method of use led to a person’s death.
Coroners’ data has repeatedly shown people who die of an overdose are alone and indoors.
Harm reduction advocates and some politicians — including Larry Campbell when he was mayor between 2002 and 2005 — have called for drug inhalation rooms in Vancouver.
The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS is working on a plan to open six such rooms inside its Hope to Health facility at 611 Powell St., where it opened an injection site in 2020 and more recently offered medication-assisted treatment therapy to patients.
'One of the scariest statistics'
While tent fires have significantly decreased, the most alarming spike has been observed in outdoor fires, which have risen by 42 per cent over the same six-month period for last year, said Trudeau, noting 26 per cent of all fires in the first six months were deliberately set.
“That's one of the scariest statistics,” he said, noting some of the cases this year. “We've had an individual or individuals just walking around in Strathcona, downtown, Downtown Eastside and into the West End just lighting outdoor fires.”
Dumpsters have been a target, along with combustible materials in the street and alley, said Trudeau, noting the fire department, police and community members continue to work to identify and address the root causes of such acts.
Firefighters were called to a house fire Tuesday in the 1100-block of East 54th Avenue. Trudeau said a cause has yet to be determined, but he noted the home wasn’t equipped with a working smoke alarm.
Trudeau said it’s important that every resident have a working smoke alarm — on each level, if the living unit is more than one storey — and to ensure any smoking material is discarded in water or sand.