Victoria arson highlighting mental health crisis first responders are facing

Victoria arson highlighting mental health crisis first responders are facing
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A man has been arrested after allegedly setting fire to his suite, injuring six, however, police say he was experiencing a mental health crisis - a call that's been increasing recently.

It was a dramatic scene Thursday night as flames ignited and burning furiously at Victoria’s City Centre Hotel.

“Apparently some kid blew up a propane tank because he didn’t want to come out to the cops,” said Kathleen Smith, a witness at the scene.

Authorities are suggesting that the fire is only half the problem.

For two hours prior to the blaze, Victoria Police were dealing with an armed man in crisis who barricaded himself in his suite.

“We find that the man has not only barricaded but has fortified that door,” said Constable Cam MacIntyre.

It was only after an extended period of time dealing with the situation that officers saw smoke.

Victoria Police were able to push through the barricaded door, only to be met by heavy smoke and fire.

That’s when Victoria Fire Department took over, rescuing three people trapped by heavy smoke on their balconies on the fourth floor.

“Smoke inhalation is the number one cause of injury or fatality at a fire. It doesn’t take much to be overcome by smoke,” said Victoria Fire deputy chief Dan Atkinson.

“These people in this particular instance absolutely did the right thing, they exited to clean air and oxygen and awaited rescue.”

Several residents and officers on the scene were treated for smoke inhalation. Six others were taken to hospital including the man in crisis, suspected of arson, who was arrested under the mental health act.

“Mental health touches all of us and has a profound effect on our communities, our neighbourhoods and the world we live in,” said Heidi Hartman, Vancouver Island’s regional director of B.C. Housing.

And first responders say the mental health of our community, is worse than ever.

“Certainly we’ve seen a steady increase, since the start of the pandemic,” said Atkinson.

“But even preceding the pandemic with the housing crisis and opioid crisis that’s currently ongoing. It’s challenging times for a lot of people in our community.”

Mental health calls across the South Island, are up. Something that’s stretching first responders, thin.

“The thing that is important to recognize about these calls, is that they require a significant number of officers. Sometimes 75 per cent of on-duty staff,” said Cst. MacIntyre

“The calls still keep coming in, however. The calls for assaults, other offences, they don’t stop.”

For the Victoria City Centre Fire, the damage is estimated to be around $250,000, and have displaced 87 people.

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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