3 min

Where’s the fire?

Firefighters accused of harassing park users

Credit: Gareth Kirkby

Queers frequenting the Stanley Park trails are demanding answers from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. They’re upset after firefighters allegedly harassed people near Second Beach in the early morning hours of May 22 and 24.

They say men were hiding in the bushes, others close to tears for fear of being exposed after firefighters blared their truck sirens and made inappropriate comments.

Spokespeople for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) confirm a fire call for May 24 but nothing for May 22. However, the accounts of two department spokespeople differ.

And, to add insult to injury, says Mark Steele, 27, the incident took place at the exact spot where Aaron Webster was beaten to death Nov 17, 2001 in a deadly gay-bashing.

Steele says he and his partner were walking through the trails when the truck appeared both nights. On May 22, he says, Engine 8 came roaring up the park road in the wrong direction.

Steele saw no signs of any fires. He says firefighters were dressed in regulation dark blue shirts and pants, not gear to fight a fire on an emergency call.

People cruising the trails were hid from firefighters wandering through the bushes with powerful flashlights, Steele recalls. On the second night, he says, firefighters shone lights into passing cars while blocking part of the road with their truck.

“It’s totally inappropriate. I was pissed off,” Steele says. “There was no fire at all. Who’s in charge?”

Steele made a point of asking the firefighters from Engine 8, headquartered at the Hamilton and Smythe fire station, what was going on. He says one replied that the only fires being lit were between guys on the trails. Then he asked how to get to Cathedral Trail.

“They were really rude,” Steele says, calling the city employees “six macho, homophobic vigilantes on a quest.”

The firefighters frightened some of the older park users.

“There’s a lot of really old gentlemen in the parks who really don’t want to be arrested,” Steele says. “My partner and I had one older gentlemen approach us almost in tears because of his fear of his personal identity being threatened by these guys.”

VFRS officials say dispatch records show a fire call for Cathedral Trail on May 24.

“They were on a rubbish container fire,” says VFRS spokesman John Perrie. “They met the caller on Cathedral Trail who showed them where the fire was.”

However, Perrie and deputy chief of emergency services Bob Smith have differing times for the park visit. Smith says the truck arrived at 3:49 am while Perrie says it was 3:42 am. Smith says they left at 4:15 am while Perrie indicates 4:30 am.

Smith says he asked the Engine 8 crew for their account of events before indicating Steele’s concerns.

Smith says the crew was not aware of anyone watching them or that they might have startled people “not anxious to be seen.”

Smith says there were four people on the engine. One stayed with the vehicle while the other three went up the trail with hand lamps.

And, he added, two people sought out the firefighters.

Smith says he accepts the firefighters’ account of events.

Steele questions what would have happened if there had been a real emergency with lives endangered while the firefighters were baiting gays in the park for no apparent reason.

“If there was real danger, the police would be there,” Steele says. “It’s a bunch of firemen trying to be policemen.”

Late last year, Little Sister’s owner Jim Deva characterized the fire department as the most homophobic institution of all city departments. He had received many requests for copies of the firefighters calendar produced to raise money for charity work. Deva said the Vancouver Firefighters Charitable Society has historically been resistant to stocking the calendar at the store. The group has committed to doing so this year.

Perrie says complaints to the VFRS should contact the department.

“If they want to pursue it, get them to call,” he says. “Most people’s complaints are very self-serving. They have their own agenda. We often can get into confrontations with people . . . especially when they’re doing things we don’t think are correct.”