Is It Arson? Seven Suspicious Fires in Seven Days Rock Toronto’s Homeless Encampments

On Saturday, December 5, Jimmie Tierney woke up just after 10:30 p.m. on Toronto’s Harbourfront to “the flames, the heat, and [my friend] screaming at me to get out. It burned the back of my igloo.” “Igloos” in this case are Styrofoam and Fabrene wrap structures designed by North Bay’s John MacIsaac and paid for and constructed by Encampment Supportment Network (ESN) volunteers in recent weeks. ESN has re-dubbed them foam domes.

Before and After Pictures of the Foam Dome Burned in the First HTO fire from Jimmie Tierney’s phone

(See CBC coverage of ESN volunteers building foam domes outside Mayor John Tory’s condominium on Sunday, November 29.)

Jimmie’s friend had arrived back at the the camp in HTO Park that evening to his foam dome aflame, a fire City of Toronto Chief Communications Officer Brad Ross would make use of politically on Twitter the following Monday:


Jimmie, however, does not think such fires are the fault of the domes or of the tiny, portable homes designed and built by Khaleel Seivwright.

“I think we have an arsonist running around,” Jimmie insists. “They physically pulled the front door open and threw something inside of it.” After the first big flames died down, flames which Jimmie captured on his cell phone at 10:35 p.m., fire fighters tried to put things to rest with a chemical retardant, which failed. They then brought the fire truck out from the station that lies just next door to the encampment. “You could see the front door [of the dome], where it was melted, it was intentionally pulled open.” It took about fifteen minutes, by Jimmie’s estimation, for the small structure to burn entire.

Soon after, Toronto Police arrived on scene, according to Jimmie, taking statements from both he and his friend. Police put up crime scene tape and were particularly keen to know whether his friend had any beefs with anyone. They tried to get him to answer whether he knew of any reason his dome specifically would be targeted.

While he tried to sleep, never well, on and off through the remainder of the night, Toronto Police maintained a presence until around nine or ten the next morning per Jimmie’s recollection.

Curiously, however, when Toronto Sun reporter Jenny Yuen asked Toronto Police spokeswoman Const. Caroline de Kloet what they knew about this fire, the first of at least seven in Toronto homeless encampments in seven days, de Kloet said she could not find anything.

“The only fire related to an encampment in their system,” beyond the large Lamport Stadium fire on Tuesday according to de Kloet, “was on Dec. 7 at Moss Park where a structure was ablaze. The cause of that fire was deemed undetermined.”

Photo by Jeff Bierk of the aftermath of the First Moss Park Tiny Home Encampment Fire.

In speaking with Jeff Bierk, the ESN lead for Moss Park, with my colleague Greg Cook, who drove the affected resident to a shelter after the fire, and with a third source who sometimes deals drugs to the affected tiny home resident, here is what I have been able to piece together of this second, rather serious encampment fire:

One encampment resident noticed a police car keeping watch over the encampment from across Shuter Street just before the fire started around 10:30 p.m. (Jimmie also noted the presence of an unmarked car he felt unusual near the HTO Park encampment that left soon after the fire was put out). While police are saying the cause is undetermined, campsite rumours have suggested the resident set it themselves or that it was potentially an argument over a drug debt.

The night of the fire, however, the affected resident said that someone had demanded that they give up their tiny house. Not long after they refused, the fire started. The next day, another resident reported that they had heard quarreling and two bangs and came out soon thereafter to the scene of the tiny house fire. The dealer I spoke with said that the particular resident is not known to run up signficant debts, generally paying in advance.

Photo of the First Moss Park Encampment Tiny House Fire from the evening of by Greg Cook

Khaleel, upset that the tiny houses he has designed to be fire resistant have been politically targeted by the City of late, immediately hired a private investigator to look into the cause of the fire separately. Police refused to let the P.I. examine the scene the next day, and, to date, the P.I., like the police, has not reached a conclusion as to the cause of the fire or identified any primary suspect or suspects.

It is believed that this fire may have started in tarps that were attached to the roof of the tiny home.

The following night, another resident in the same location in Moss Park returned to their tiny home only to find that the top of it was scorched badly by fire but that it had burnt out on its own or had otherwise been quickly put out. No witnesses to this third fire have come forward and emergency personnel were not called.

Photo of the 2nd Moss Park Encampment Fire submitted by Jeff Bierk

That same evening as this second Moss Park fire, there was also a major fire with big explosions caused by propane canisters in the encampment on the west side of Lamport Stadium in Liberty Village.

According to Parkdale Alerts, which tracks emergency scanners in the area, the first call regarding the fire at Lamport came in at 5:26 p.m. At 5:34 p.m. Naomi Garneau posted video to Facebook of large explosions from the fire taken from her nearby apartment or condo building. By 5:39, Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micaleff noted on Twitter that the fire department “got it out quickly.”

Since that time, I have spoken with two of the three residents of the tent and foam dome that burned, with a another resident named Kiki who interacted with the affected residents in the time frame leading up to the fire (taking some of her own video of the fire), with other encampment residents, and with a key ESN volunteer for Parkdale.

M.J., who was in the tent at the time of the fire started along with her partner, described how they had arrived back in their tent for the evening and her partner was taking off his boots when they “heard a sound like someone peeing on the tent.” She stuck her head out of the tent to see what was going on and saw a man on the other side of the tent with a water bottle squirting liquid on the tent.

They swore at each other briefly and the man flicked a cigarette onto the liquid he had just poured out, igniting the tent.

At that point, M.J. recounts having a seizure. When paramedics and fire personnel arrived on the scene, she told them how it had started.

As I have recounted on Twitter and for the article in the Sun, a resident nearby named Kiki who had been speaking with the man from the couple throughout the evening, described for me a visit by a police woman the next morning. According to Kiki, the officer showed camp residents video of a man crossing from the west side of Fraser Avenue, near a Green P Parking Pay station, with a container in his hand. The man, per Kiki’s recollection of seeing the video, passed by the tent while pouring liquid and continued from west to east through the encampment before disappearing from the scene.

M.J. states that a woman from the neighbourhood showed her the same video at a later point. M.J.’s conclusion from the interaction right before the fire, where she didn’t get a good look at the man’s face but heard his voice, and from the video in question, is that the man is likely an ex-boyfriend of hers who had recently threatened her. The ex-boyfriend is living offsite in an apartment with friends currently.

M.J.’s current boyfriend recently moved from the ICU but remains in hospital due to injuries suffered in the fire. For several days, he had lost his sight, but that has finally begun to return. His hands are badly damaged. M.J. recalls peeling a large layer of burnt skin from his face just before the paramedics arrived.

Police have never, so far as she knows, attempted to take a further statement from her.

Police, nevertheless, concluded for the Sun that there was nothing suspicious about this fire. They also advised CBC to file a Freedom of Information request if they wanted more information on these fires. I have, accordingly, filed such a request (which can only be mailed as in person requests are no longer allowed and TPS does not have an online portal for such submissions). I have asked for the video of the man crossing the street and pouring or squirting liquid on the tent.

On Friday morning, a fifth fire was set deliberately, this time on the east side of the Lamport Stadium encampment. In talking to Kiki and to ESN’s Parkdale volunteer Marianna Reis, it appears that there were no encampment outsiders involved. According to the best evidence and testimony so far, two camp residents were involved in an intense argument and one came back afterward and set the other’s stuff on fire. As the camp’s fire extinguishers had not yet been replaced from the Tuesday fire, other residents ran to the nearby respite at 69 Fraser, obtained an extinguisher, and put out the fire quickly with no attendance by police or the fire department.

On Saturday, I received news of two new fires. The sixth fire occurred deep in the bush at Cherry Beach on Friday evening. It appears that no emergency personnel attended the scene. Our intitial information came from an outreach worker close to a person from the couple whose campsite was burned. The couple was not at their campsite when the fire was set and believe it was deliberate.

Photo by Doug Johnson Hatlem

When I visited the scene on Monday, I found a half-full red gas container 100 paces away, just off one of the winding paths through the area and just several meters from the road. The handle of the container was wrapped in toilet paper.

Photo by Doug Johnson Hatlem

As campsites are fairly spread out in the bush in the area and the couple was new to the encampment, other residents nearby had very little information about what had happened. One other camper said he had seen the fire on Friday night as he was walking to his tent but just assumed they were having a bonfire.

A number of theories have, rather naturally, sprung up around these fires ranging from the City’s insistence that encampments are just inherently dangerous (with police and fire departments suggesting that few, if any of these are deliberate) to domestic disputes or personal animosity or drug debts explaining most (some but by no means all may fit this pattern, Jimmie for instance emphasizes that HTO Park campers are not into drug use and there were not couples there) to angry NIMBY neighbours or an arsonist or even (much more difficult to prove but with some elements possibly pointing this way) confidential informants with a blind eye or even subtle or active encouragement from the officers that handle their affairs. I am hoping to explore some of these theories more thoroughly in a follow-up article later this week or next week.

As many as six of the fires may have been set or accelerated by people from outside the encampments. The first and most major fires at each location (HTO Park, Moss Park, Lamport Stadium, Cherry Beach) are all camp spots closest to the nearest road.

When I inquired with Toronto Fire Services as to their determination of the causes of these fires, my message was forwarded to the City of Toronto’s corporate media. Kris Scheuer, Senior Communications Advisor, wrote back to say that “[t]o date, Toronto Fire Services has not been provided with any information to support” accounts of fires being set or accelerated from outside any of these parks. “For example, the Lamport Stadium fire was not intentional and [was] accidental in nature.”

The seventh fire, however, returns us to where we began, HTO Park on the Habourfront and Jimmie Tierney. Jimmie took a shelter-hotel, far from the downtown core, as offered by the City’s Streets to Home program after the first fire. Early Saturday morning Jen Evans a volunteer outreach worker and board member of a related agency, was out walking her dog when she discovered that yet another fire had ravaged the area near Jimmie’s foam dome. By that time, the materials had cooled off and a melted plastic garbage can had hardened.

On Monday, Jimmie came back down to see if any of his remaining belongings had been affected. It turned out that it was primarily other people’s property.

I asked Jimmie how he had become homeless in the first place. He stated that he had worked for five years for the City’s solid waste department but became homeless after shattering his legs badly in jumping from the third floor to escape a house fire two years ago.

He was in hospital for several months afterwards, took several more months to recover his ability to walk, and was unable to return to his job with City of Toronto. Disability payments were not enough to keep him housed and were recently terminated anyway, a decision Jimmie says he has appealed.

If Jimmie wins the appeal and is awarded back payments? “I want to buy a motor home and travel Canada.”

Doug Johnson Hatlem writes on polling, elections data, and politics. For questions, comments, or to inquire about syndicating this weekly column for the 2020 cycle in your outlet, he can be contacted on Twitter @djjohnso (DMs open) or at (subject line #10at10 Election Column).