A homeless camp hidden by trees and close to the creek in the Williams Lake River Valley was dismantled Monday by city crews after the fire department responded to a fire at the site Sunday afternoon.
“That’s pretty scary,” said Mayor Walt Cobb of the fire. “If we end up with a fire in the river valley we’re in trouble. We were aware there were people staying down there and that’s one of the reasons we were monitoring it.”
The Tribune visited the site on Monday as crews arrived with a backhoe and a dump truck to remove debris.
There was bedding, a stereo, monitors, fencing, a weedeater, books, a naloxone kit, clothing, a generator, toaster, food and drug containers and more littering the site.
Gary Muraca, the city’s manager of municipal services, said he and his staff were first made aware of the camp about four weeks ago.
“We had concerns because it was turning into a garbage dump and because of the activities that were going on there,” Muraca said, adding there were four people living there that they knew of.
The mother of a 28-year-old man that had been staying in the camp told the Tribune her son needs help.
Rena Petz said when she found out her son was staying at the camp she contacted the City by e-mail to alert them of the situation.
“I told them I’ve been crying for help for my son for a long time now and nothing happens — the system is broken.”
Petz, who lives in Kersley, said she doesn’t know what to do.
“I’m trying to get a medical warrant, but the problem with the law is that he’s an adult,” she said.
“It’s a vicious cycle and makes me so frustrated.”
Muraca said about three weeks ago the City involved the Salvation Army, bylaw staff, RCMP and Interior Health.
“We had them all at the table to discuss how best to deal with these people and get them the support they needed. We told them our biggest concern was public safety, especially for fire.”
If the fire had been a week later, and if things were drier, Muraca said he hates to think of what might have happened.
“Can you imagine if it travelled to the Tolko log yard above? We cannot turn a blind eye and we cannot let another camp get established like that one,” he added. “We know there are some others ones down there, maybe just a tent, but when they get like that one we have to go in and shut it down.”
Muraca said outreach services from the Salvation Army and the RCMP visited the site recently, offered services, explained some concerns to the residents who said they would vacate the premises, but that did not happen.
He estimated there are more than 100 homeless people in Williams Lake presently, up from the usual number of 50, and said while some people are coming to the area from other places, the majority of them are locals.
“We have had issues with people staying in the outdoor stage and the covered picnic area in Boitanio Park as well,” Muraca said. “When you are in these key areas where safety and kids are involved, we are going to put the run on them.”
Cobb said there’s a zero-percent vacancy rate in Williams Lake which isn’t helping the situation.
“Some of the people camping in the river valley cannot find a place to live, some are just here for the weekend — it is a combination of things,” Cobb added.
While in the river valley Monday, the Tribune also witnessed tenters above the creek, however, Muraca said that those individuals are on BC Rail property who were notified by the city of the situation.
Dave Dickson, manager of community safety, said he is not sure what the answer is to the problem, but fires in the river valley are putting the city in jeopardy.