Regulations restrict the ability those who are supposed to protect the community from doing so.
In the July 17, 2017 City Council Committee Of The Whole meeting a disturbing state of affairs came to light which affects all of us who live and / or own property in Grand Forks.
A short while ago the province instituted a province wide state of emergency due to the heightened wildfire threat. Large areas of BC are burning and over 30,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and towns. Many don’t know if they will have homes to go back to.
Here in Grand Forks we’ve been spared so far but the conditions are prime for a fire to take off and endanger the town. Hence bans on open fires and camp fires.
Even with this risk, and ban, there are a few individuals who are flaunting these rules with relative impunity. These are a small number of the homeless people who have no warm place to spend the night. And even though it’s scorching hot during the day it does get quite cool at night . . . so they start campfires when it gets cold.
One of these people has a small camp on the side of Observation Mountain fairly close to residential properties at the north end of 2nd and 3rd streets. People who live in houses in the area are quite upset because not only does this person repeatedly have camp fires past sundown but apparently nobody has the power to make him stop doing this.
The Fire department can come and put out the fires. They have and continue to do so. They could ticket him but seeing as he has no income or address that would be a futile exercise.
The RCMP will not likely arrest him because it’s a mental health issue – not a crime (yet). In cases involving mental health they do not incarcerate individuals here in BC. If they do apprehend him he won’t go to jail; he’ll be taken to a health facility where he won’t likely be incarcerated. (for more info on how the RCMP deal with homeless and mental health related offenders see the video in this article)
Provincial regulations regarding flaunting the campfire ban have a penalty that results in a fine, not arrest and incarceration. From the province’s web page on Fire Bans and Restrictions “Serious fines and penalties can result for not adhering to these rules while in the jurisdiction of the BC Wildfire Service.” That presumes that the individuals can pay fines and act rationally and with care. And aren’t likely to flagrantly flaunt the rules.
If his campfire were to get out of control and start the forest on fire, and the fire department was unable to get to it in time, the fire would race up Observation Mountain. On the top of it are communications facilities, antennae and cell phone towers – this would leave us with next to no wireless communications. On the other side is the residential subdivision of Copper Ridge which consists of fairly expensive homes nestled right in the interface. The forest on the town facing side comes right down to residential areas that are right downtown. This hasn’t happened yet because the fire department has been responsive to the threat and the campfire hasn’t gotten out of control. I doubt that the person in question has a fire extinguisher handy. Or can afford one.
So we have a situation where the town could lose significant amounts of property and possibly lives. Potentially millions of dollars in damage. And apparently no one can do anything about it due to regulatory proscription.
Conversations on social media show that people’s frustrations and fears are tending towards anger and the threat of vigilante actions is implied. The irony of this would be that those engaging in this behavior could find themselves incarcerated and unable to do anything while their property burns.
We do have an extreme weather facility to provide shelter for homeless people when the weather becomes too dangerous to sleep outside but those are intended for cold weather in the winter time, not summer. And the opinion of those who have had to deal with these individuals (there are more than just the one on the mountain) is that a number of them wouldn’t take advantage of the service if it was open.
These are people who have mental health problems. Some have complex issues which are exacerbated with drug abuse. Which means they aren’t going to make rational decisions. And will not react normally or predictably to suggestions, instructions or demands that they change their behavior.
If they are too stressed out, or feel too pressured to change how they behave, they might respond negatively. The comments I’ve heard regarding this person’s reactions to comments on this describe him as belligerent. This is how the town lost the two remaining historic hotels a few years ago. The court case about that became a mental health one. It also figured into the fire bombing of city hall by a frustrated homeless man.
So in retrospect the situation we find our town in was predictable. Even so no one, no organization, was able to look far enough ahead and head it off.
So what’s the town to do? What can it do before it’s too late?
I find myself in the uncomfortable position (because I do not want to see people locked up for being different) of asking the question: Is this person not a danger to others? (or by implication of reactionary vigilante reaction to his behaviour a danger to himself as well?)
Popular culture says that when someone is clearly a danger to themselves or others they can be detained for a period of time for cooling down and observation.
Is that even true?
In BC ‘involuntary admission’ only results in a 48 hour stay and only after a doctor has examined the individual and only if they meet certain criteria. (see page 13 of this PDF). This can be extended to 14 days and even a month but I’m not a mental health professional and it’s not clear to me if any of this would result in a person in this situation being removed from the area until the fire risk was over.
It’s clear to me and others that provincial regulations never envisioned this situation. And given the glacial speed at which change happens I wonder how much of our town, and BC, will have to burn down before regulations reflect reality.
You can watch, and listen, to the discussion in the Committee Of The Whole (35 minutes 17 seconds in) below