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City concerned about squatter camps
Officials say illegal campfires in homeless encampments could spread like the one extinguished last week near Staples

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Officials with the City of Yellowknife say they are concerned about fires at squatter camps within the city limits and are asking the public to report to them the location of any homeless campsites that they discover.

NNSL photo/graphic

Charred branches and scorched earth are left behind after a small fire May 17 in a wooded area behind Staples on Old Airport Road. It is not entirely clear what started the fire but the city says it wants to hear from residents about illegal fires and squatter camps in the city. Fires can be lit outside campgrounds but only with a burn permit in an approved fire pit, according to the city. - John McFadden/NNSL photo

That is according to Nalini Naidoo, the city's director of communications. Yellowknifer asked about fires at squatters camps after fire crews were called in to extinguish a small fire last week behind Staples on Old Airport Road about 100 metres behind the store. RCMP arrested a man at the scene for being drunk in a public place.

"The male was released without charges when he was sober," stated RCMP spokesperson Const. Elenore Sturko in an e-mail. "It is not believed that he intentionally started the fire but I believe a burning cigarette caused a small fire."

There are several of these homeless encampments scattered throughout the city although the majority of them appear to be located in wooded areas along or near Frame Lake. With the current dry conditions, officials are concerned that such fires could get out of control and spread.

"The city deals with squatters camps throughout the city year-round. The city does have concerns over squatters camping within city limits when individuals are not using a territorial park or burning without an approved fire pit," Naidoo stated in an e-mail. "The concerns centre on the ability for a small campfire to grow into a grassland or wildland fire that could cause significant damage to our natural environment."

Fires are allowed at makeshift campsites within the city limits for cooking and for warmth. But according to Dennis Marchiori, the city's director of public safety, people setting such fires must have a burn permit and an approved fire pit.

"Under the fire protection and emergency services bylaw no person shall set any fire out of doors unless the fire is specifically permitted . if you have a burn permit and a fire pit," Marchiori said. "If you are camping in an area that is not an official campground and you don't have a fire pit than you are not allowed to set a fire."

Marchiori said that the obvious difference between a fire set in a campground and one set in the bush is that the fire department knows where the fire pits in the campgrounds are. Whereas firefighters are pretty much forced to follow the smoke when they get called to a squatter's fire.

Naidoo said that taxpayers could be on the hook in more ways than one when it comes to the homeless encampments. She said that multiple departments within the city become involved in the detection, posting, cleaning or removal of these sites. If the work is contacted out, then the city has to pay for human and financial resources.

The situation is a little bit different outside the city limits. If you want to have a fire for any other reason than cooking or warmth - then a burn permit from the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources is required, according to spokesperson Judy McLinton. If the fire is for cooking or warmth or both than a permit it not required, McLinton stated in an e-mail. The department stresses however that the individual is responsible for their fire so they should make sure it stays under control and is completely out before they leave.

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