A group of volunteers who clean up the edges of Chilliwack’s rivers are trying to figure out how to deal with a huge pile of burnt trash following a fire at a homeless camp in a wooded area near the Chilliwack River.
Thousands of pounds of metal and other garbage is currently sitting amid charred evergreen trees, just outside of city limits in the Chilliwack River Valley. The blackened pile, about 40 feet by 40 feet, is a result of a homeless structure that caught fire on April 9.
Now, volunteers are trying to come up with a plan to get rid of the trash.
Folks with the Fraser Valley Illegal Dumping Alliance (FVIDA), B.C. conservation officer Eric Tyukodi and RCMP officer Const. Marc Verreault trekked into the site on April 15, nearly one week after the blaze to investigate and take photos.
“The whole area is a disaster,” volunteer Chris Gadsden said. “I don’t know how we’ll deal with it. It’s such a long way to take this stuff.”
The burn site is located in a forested area halfway between Chilliwack Lake Road and the Chilliwack River. From the road, it’s a 15-minute walk to the homeless camp. Along the way, they pass two other camps of equal or bigger size. The trail is narrow in sections and they cross a rickety makeshift bridge over a stream as blackberry bushes scratch them along the way.
The Chilliwack Fire Department had difficulty accessing the blaze as vehicles cannot get to the site. Hoses and a pump were brought in by foot and a nearby pond was used as a water source to extinguish the fire.
Six days after the fire, the smell of chemicals and burnt items like plastic, rubber, computer parts, and coating on the metal still lingers in the air.
Amid the rubble are propane tanks, barbecues, camp stoves, electronics, bike tires, ceiling fans and tool boxes. One volunteer figures there’s well over $100,000 worth of stolen tools.
“That’s another environmental concern, all that stuff is in the soil now,” Tyukodi said. “And these (burnt) trees are more than likely dead because they were exposed to it.”
Const. Verreault figures the camp has been there for a while and while homeless people might have abandoned the site during the cold winter months to seek indoor shelter, when they return in the spring they would continue to haul in more stuff, adding to the mess.
“I don’t think I’ve seen so much metal,” Verreault said, staring at the massive pile.
Volunteers with FVIDA are now taking the first steps to figure out who should clean it up – and how.
There’s talk of bagging the garbage up and using a helicopter to lift it out as was done at a location not far away in December 2017.
Or they might bring in a small tractor or Bobcat. No matter how it will be removed, the cost is estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“The chemicals are one thing,” Tyukodi said. “There’s broken glass in there, there’s all kind of sharp wire in there that’s now been coated by the chemicals that have been released. There’s more than likely needles in there and other drug paraphernalia. Is it really something you want volunteers digging through?”
“It’s beyond the scope of our group,” added volunteer Terry Bodman. “Some agency has to take responsibility for it and I don’t know who’s going to do that.”
He said it has to be a government-driven initiative to clean it up, and Tyukodi agrees.
“It would probably require some partnership between different agencies,” Tyukodi said.
It’s a complex problem with no simple solution, said fellow volunteer Ross Aikenhead.
The homeless camp is located in the Chilliwack River Valley in Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) Electoral Area E. It’s on Soowahlie First Nation land but the camp is also on 50-plus acres of private property owned by Earl Commodore Jr.
“It’s a jurisdiction problem,” Aikenhead said.
FVIDA volunteers are reaching out to as many agencies as possible to get them on board and come up with a solution. Fraser Valley Illegal Dumping Alliance has contacted Soowahlie First Nation, the property owner, the FVRD (including Area E director Orion Engar), Fraser Basin Council, the City of Chilliwack, RCMP, B.C. Conservation Officer Service, the Chilliwack Fire Department, BC Wildfire Service and other volunteer agencies.
Gadsden, who has been cleaning up trash dumped along the edges of Chilliwack’s rivers for decades, said the homeless camps have been getting worse. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there was never a problem like this – even back in 2002 when Chilliwack Vedder River Cleanup Society started, homeless camps this size did not exist.
As summer approaches, volunteers and officials are afraid with tinder dry conditions and water levels rising, a fire like this could happen again and could contaminate the river.
“You look at all these other camps,” Gadsden said, referring to the other homeless sites they passed on the way to the burned site, “and it’s going to turn into the same thing.”
Another homeless camp fire could “rip through this valley,” added volunteer Leanne Herrick.