FACT: There were 132 encampment fires in 2020, almost half as many as the City claims, and the 132 figure includes fires where there was no property damage and there were no injuries.1 It is also likely that the 132 figure includes fire incidents that were unrelated to encampments, and is further inflated.2
The reason for this discrepancy in the number of encampment fires is that the City of Toronto has been calling “fire response events” not “fires.” Fire response events include all emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire. Even if it turns out that a suspected uncontrolled fire in an encampment is simply a false alarm, a controlled campfire, BBQ smoke, steam from a pot on a cooking stove, or even someone setting off fireworks, these “fire response events” are counted as “fires” in the City’s accounting of encampment fires, significantly inflating the number of actual fires.3 If the City were to cite “fire incidents” instead, which are defined as emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire that required fire suppression, the number of encampment fires would be significantly smaller.4 For 2020, citing the number of “fire response events” in encampments instead of “fire incidents” results an almost doubling of the number of encampment fires (253 instead of 132).
FACT: City of Toronto data about encampment fires do not take into account the significant increase in the number and size of encampments across the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the increase in park use overall.
Given that the number and size of encampments across the city has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic,5 and that the level of recreational park use has increased dramatically as well,6 it only makes sense that the number of notifications of suspected uncontrolled fires would also increase. Not only are there more people living in encampments who engage in activities that can involve fire (cooking, Indigenous sacred fires), but there are more recreational park users in parks who engage in activities that can involve fire and to observe the activities of those living in encampments and to notify the fire department of suspected uncontrolled fires. This context is critical when looking at encampment fire data to assess the relative safety of encampments.
City Claim: City of Toronto. (June 3, 2021). “City Manager’s report outlines City of Toronto’s ongoing efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness and ensure the safety of the City’s shelter system”; Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System”; City of Toronto. (May 28, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to protect and assist people experiencing homelessness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic”; City of Toronto. (May 20, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to support people experiencing homelessness through immunization, enhanced infection prevention, and safe inside space”; City of Toronto. (February 25, 2021). “Frequently Asked Questions – Wooden structures in encampments”; City of Toronto. (February 19, 2021). “City of Toronto serves notice on illegal structures in parks”; multiple claims to media.
- Source: Document obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427. The document lists the number of “fire events” that the fire department responded to between January 2015 and February, 2021 which required fire suppression and which were classified as “fire,” “explosion” and “no loss outdoor fire” as per Ontario’s “Standard Incident Report Codes List.” A “no loss outdoor fire” is a fire that does not result in property damage or injury; no loss outdoor fires do not include “arson, vandalism, children playing, recycling or dump fires.” “No loss outdoor fires” and “fires” are not distinguished in the available data. Additional FOI requests are required to ascertain the actual number of out-of-control (outdoor) fires and explosions. Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List.”
- While some “fire incidents” may be obviously “encampment fires” (such as when a tent or shelter is on fire) other “fire incidents” (such as a campfire) may simply be those that occur in parks that happen to have encampments in them. It is unclear how the distinction between a fire incident in a park and a fire incident in an encampment in a park is made. City staff have equated any activity that takes place in a park with activity that takes place in an encampment when these are not the same. See, for example, the testimony of Troy Ford, the City’s witness who spoke to fire safety, in which he interchanges parks with encampments, confuses the general area around encampments with encampments/encamped people, and blames encampment residents for events that occur in the park that there is no evidence an encampment resident was involved in. Ford, Troy. Affidavit in City of Toronto Motion Record, Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. It seems likely then, that some fire incidents that occur in parks that are unrelated to encampments may be classified as “encampment fires” if there are encampments nearby.
- A freedom of information request made to the City of Toronto asked, “How many fires were there in homeless encampments, as expressed by month and year, between 2015 and the present date?” The City of Toronto responded to this request for information by providing the table, “Fire events that occurred in homeless encampment.” This table indicates that there were 253 “fire events” in homeless encampments in 2020. As the table lists the number of “fire events,” not actual fires, a follow-up was made to the City that reiterated that the request was for information about “fires” not “fire events.” This time, the City responded with a different table that listed only “fire incidents” from 2015-February, 2021. This table indicates that there were 132 “fire incidents” in homeless encampments in 2020. In an email accompanying the “fire incidents” table, the City clarified that the City understands “fire” to mean a “fire response event,” which it defines as “an emergency response to notification (alarm or call from the public) of a suspected uncontrolled fire. These events are recorded with the OFM codes associated with Fire, Pre-Fire Conditions, Controlled Burning or False Alarm.” The OFM code for “Pre-Fire Conditions” pertains to situations where no fire is present, such as an engine overheating, lightning, fireworks, a pot on a stove, and steam from cooking (see: Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List”.) Documents obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
- FOI request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
- Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System.”
- Lightle, M. (April 18, 2021) How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers. Toronto Observer.