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Fire activity spikes in Kelowna as homeless try to stay warm

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As temperatures plummet, people who continue sheltering outside in Kelowna are struggling to keep warm.

“I had no idea what the temperature was, but it was definitely below freezing,” said one resident at the city’s homeless camp. “Probably 10 below at least.”

That resident, affectionately known as Mama Kjaer, has been living in a tent along the Okanagan Rail Trail for six months now.

Kjaer said nighttime conditions are so cold that she hears people moaning and groaning throughout the night.

“Grown men crying ‘I’m so cold.’ It’s sad, it’s really sad,” she told Global News.

According to Global Okanagan meteorologist Peter Quinlan, the overnight temperature was -9 C. However, with the wind chill, it felt like -18.

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The frigid conditions have prompted many to find ways to keep warm, including lighting fires.

“We’re noticing an increase in fires in public places like parks, streets, roadways, even business parking lots,” said Paul Johnson, a fire prevention officer with the Kelowna Fire Department.

“In the last six days, we’ve responded to 22 outdoor fires. This doesn’t include fires that are being put out by bylaw officers, security or the public.”

Read more: ‘Outpouring of compassion’ for those coping on Kelowna streets during cold weather

Johnson said many of the fires are occurring along the Okanagan Rail Trail, where the homeless tend to camp.

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The downtown area is also seeing a fair share of fires.

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This week, an exterior door/alcove at Global Okanagan was scorched.

While the exact cause isn’t known, artifacts left behind suggest someone experiencing homelessness was seeking shelter in the alcove.

“It’s cold out there and there are people outside who want to be warm,” Johnson said.

With no emergency winter shelter up and running, Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas said the city will be activating a temporary warming vehicle starting Thursday night.

A 24-passenger bus, being funded by BC Housing, will be parked overnight at the outdoor sheltering site, where people can come in throughout the night to warm up.

“We want to do a trial run,” Dyas told Global News.

The bus is being supplied by a third-party contractor with experience providing a similar service in Vernon.

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The pilot program will be assessed and reviewed after a few days.

Read more: Odds of winter shelter opening in Kelowna, B.C. this year not good

The bus will be parked at the outdoor sheltering site north of the downtown core from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.

If successful, Dyas said more buses could be brought in as a temporary measure to give the homeless relief from the cold.

“There’s been another organization and other company that has reached out to me and said we also have services or facilities that we can provide,” Dyas said.

“So maybe we can look at providing more of these for the community at strategic locations.”

Dyas said the city is still working with stakeholders on trying to open an emergency winter shelter.

“We’re doing a lot behind the scenes,” he said. “We truly recognize that there is a concern that these are individuals of our community.”

At last count, there were close to 150 people sheltering outside across Kelowna.