Series of Downtown Eastside building fires alarm residents, advocates

The Street Church on East Hastings Street was damaged by fire on July 6. (Lien Yeung/CBC News - image credit)
The Street Church on East Hastings Street was damaged by fire on July 6. (Lien Yeung/CBC News - image credit)

A series of devastating fires in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is causing growing alarm among residents in the neighbourhood, say housing advocates, who are calling for a sharper focus on fire safety in the area's buildings.

Most recently, an early morning fire Monday damaged three buildings at the intersection of Powell and Princess streets, including a single room occupancy hotel (SRO) and a transitional housing site, displacing more than 60 vulnerable people.

In April, a fire at the Winters Hotel killed two residents and displaced more than 70.

Earlier this month, officials reported a 103 per cent increase in fires in the area since 2018 and a 25 per cent increase since last year.

Meanwhile, data obtained from Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) shows almost two out of every five fire code inspections in the city's SROs this year revealed a violation.

Source: Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services
Source: Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services

According to VFRS, a total of 447 inspections were conducted on the city's 181 SROs in 2022, and fire code violations were found in 38 per cent of those inspections. Data from the past few years shows the rate of violations found per SRO inspection has been above 30 per cent since 2017.

The high number of fire code violations in SROs makes residents feel unsafe in their buildings, says Dave Hamm, a member of the board of directors for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

It's also taking far too long to resolve the problems, he said.

"[Residents] have cited the windows have been nailed shut, the fire exits are locked up sometimes," said Hamm. "There are no fire extinguishers, [or] they're empty sometimes."

Isak Boyd, an administrator with VANDU, says the situation is getting worse as buildings age into further states of disrepair.

"Buildings are falling apart, they have no fire alarms, they have no sprinkler systems and it's a very dangerous situation," he said.

WATCH | Dozens of people displaced by Downtown Eastside fire:

Monday's fire displaced dozens more people when there is already a lack of safe, affordable housing in the city, say advocates, many of whom have criticized the city's ongoing clearing of homeless encampments along East Hastings Street.

The clearup was ordered late July after VFRS said people should stop setting up tents on sidewalks in the neighbourhood due to the increased fire risk.

But Hamm and others who work with people living in the Downtown Eastside argue more effort should be placed on improving fire safety in SROs and other buildings in the neighbourhood.

"The fire department should step up and [...] get those places up to code, so we can put people in housing," Hamm said.

Jon Hernandez/CBC
Jon Hernandez/CBC

The situation is creating fear among residents, said Mebrat Beyene, executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre.

"We're seeing levels of trauma and retraumatization that I don't think mainstream communities can fully appreciate," Beyene said.

BeeLee Lee, a member of the board of directors for Pivot Legal Society, saw some of these fears during a recent community fire-safety meeting.

"People were concerned about, 'Is there somebody in our community lighting fires? Do we have an arsonist in our neighbourhood? Or do we have an arsonist and some accidents?'" says Lee.

"We asked Vancouver Fire Safety about fires in the neighbourhood. We were told a lot of the fires were under investigation."

'Buildings are going up in flames, left and right'

In an email to CBC News, Asst. Chief Dave Meers said fire inspectors try to assess every SRO in Vancouver in the first half of each calendar year, and that work had already been completed in 2022.

"I can say with confidence that every SRO has been inspected this year and that any fire code violations found have been and are being followed up on," Meers said.

Watch | Vancouver fire chief Karen Fry responds to questions about fire safety in the Downtown Eastside:

B.C. Housing, which works with SRO operators to make sure buildings meet safety standards, acknowledged that the fires this year have been "devastating" for residents.

"Some of the SRO buildings in our housing portfolio have been in operation for many years and require frequent and repeated maintenance. Whenever possible, these concerns are addressed immediately," the housing agency said in a statement Wednesday.

"In situations where necessary sprinkler systems or other safety mechanisms cannot be repaired or reactivated immediately, B.C. Housing works with our non-profit providers to ensure that appropriate alternative options are established, such as a fire watch, until work can be completed."

The agency said it is working to upgrade and replace aging buildings but acknowledged that work could take years.

In the meantime, Boyd and others who work on the Downtown Eastside worry for the safety of the community's residents.

"The buck keeps getting passed around, [and] building are going up in flames, left and right," he said.