Homeless Chilliwack woman critically injured after tent catches fire
A homeless woman from Chilliwack is in hospital fighting for her life after her tent and belongings caught fire Wednesday.
Staff and patrons at a local shelter identified the victim as Jennifer Nielson-Bird, who was severely injured after a fire broke out next to a church in the 9300-block of Williams Street at around 2:50 a.m.
Crews were able to quickly extinguish the blaze and prevent it from spreading. Nielson-Bird, however, was airlifted to hospital with life-threatening burns.
“We’ve been together 12 years. She’s a very kind person and the most beautiful person in the world,” her partner, Calvin Garner, told CTV News.
Officials believe the fire was started by an open flame Nielson-Bird was using to stay warm.
Staff Ruth and Naomi’s Mission said they tried to convince her to stay there, but she decided to spend the night outdoors.
“There was room for her, but she chose not to. She went up the street and set up camp,” said executive director Bill Raddatz. “A bad mix is when you have a mix of drugs with mental illness, and she has a mix of both.”
In October, the body of another woman was found in a dumpster in Langley.
While there might have been a bed for Nielson-Bird in Chilliwack, homelessness advocates say incidents such as these still highlight the desperate need for shelter space and affordable housing in the region.
“This is a dangerous, risky time. There’s no question about it,” said Jeremy Hunka, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission. “People feel like they are forced to make a choice between freezing or taking a risk with something like a candle, fire, kerosene lamp. It’s a really impossible decision.”
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said the municipality has ramped up efforts to provide more space in shelters.
“The city is working with the agencies, with BC Housing and the province to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
In the meantime, Hunka encouraged people to donate any cold weather gear they can spare, such as jackets, boots and sleeping bags.
“Anything that you have that is not terribly worn could be, in some cases, a game-changer for somebody who’s on the street, cold and really scared this winter,” he said.
The Chilliwack Fire Department is also using the incident as a reminder to the public to properly dispose of aerosol containers, propane cylinders at an approved recycling depot.
With files from CTV Vancouver’s Sarah MacDonald