A fiery explosion beneath a Toronto bridge, which burned hot under the nighttime sky after propane tanks left in an encampment burst, is raising fears about how to keep the city’s homeless population safely warm this winter — particularly amid a growing squeeze on the shelter system.
The explosion took place late Saturday on Nov. 26. Officials didn’t know how the fire started, describing the setting as an empty encampment. No known injuries were sustained, and though transportation officers were dispatched to be sure, the bridge didn’t appear to suffer damage.
But the fiery scene illustrates a looming tension in Toronto. When winter sets in, those facing homelessness outdoors find ways to stay warm and stave off frostbite, in many cases involving propane heat that city and fire officials have labelled as dangerous. Those officials have urged people to come inside instead — but this year, that’s an especially tough task, with more than 180 people on average turned away each day in October after calling the shelter intake line.
And while a coroner’s inquest years ago recommended the city offer people safer heating sources in the wintertime — as a way to prevent death — it’s a suggestion that hasn’t been heeded.
When people try to survive the winter outdoors, they often turns up in the St. Michael’s Hospital emergency room. Last winter, hospital staff reported a rising number of people arriving in search of shelter and help for cold-weather injuries. At least one person died of hypothermia.
“Every time someone dies of hypothermia, it’s unnecessary,” said Dr. Carolyn Snider, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine. She suggested more advanced planning for when warming centres open based on forecasts of extreme weather, to give those staying on Toronto’s streets more notice. While the ER tries its best to hand out wool socks, hats, gloves and jackets to patients staying outdoors, she said places to properly warm up were critical.