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Police chief calls for coordinated Edmonton effort to shut down encampments after deadly fires

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In the wake of recent deadly fires at encampments around Edmonton, never mind inevitable frigid weather, Edmonton's police chief said at a meeting Thursday that a coordinated city effort is needed to "take down" camps.

"Quite frankly, it's just not safe to be camping outside right now," Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee said to the city police commission following a discussion of an EPS crime-reduction program. "How many fires do we actually have to see here? The encampment strategy needs to be, we need to get enough resources to actually take them down and then figure out if those that want to be housed can be housed, can some of them be sent home, etc."

On the weekend of Nov. 4-5, two people died in separate tent fires in the city's core. This past Friday, police on duty at the downtown Herb Jamieson Centre attended a large fire among nearby encampments. One person was taken to hospital with burns after several propane tanks exploded.

Early Monday, police and firefighters responded to reports of multiple explosions and someone screaming in an alley near 112 Street and 105 Avenue, where they found a man engulfed in flames. He is in critical condition in hospital. Another man, too, is in hospital with less serious injuries from the incident.

During the committee meeting, David Jones, the city's branch manager for committee standards and neighbourhoods, said the number of encampment complaints the city has received so far in 2023 is about 14,800.

"That's astronomical numbers," Jones told the committee. "Last year, we smashed all records with 9,000 complaints, and we're looking at almost doubling that again this year.”

The Nov. 4-5 deaths are the first reported from fires at encampments this year. In 2022, Edmonton police said seven people died in encampment fires.

McFee added he thinks it's important for the garbage generated by camps to be cleaned up quickly.

"It's as essential as whether you have the fire (department) there and the police to ensure safety, or you have the peace officers, or you have AHS/EMS there, but it's also important to clean up this stuff, and it needs to be relentless," he said. "It can't just be once and it moves a block ... I think we're just going to continue to push each other to actually deal with this." 

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