Skip to content

Building fire underlines rising concern about Duncan street disorder

The now boarded-up building will serve as a backdrop for a rally Friday aimed at urging the provincial government to do more to address increasing street mayhem

Travis Rankin points to a burned-out thrift store and nearby abandoned businesses just off the highway at the north end of Duncan as an example of how his town is rapidly deteriorating.

A kayak and lawnmower sit among the fire debris on the sidewalk outside Good Neighbours thrift store on York Road, which was razed by a suspected arson early Saturday. Mannequins displaying used goods sit behind shattered glass under a collapsed roof.

Rankin plans to use the now boarded-up building as a backdrop for a rally Friday morning aimed at urging the provincial government to do more to address what he says is increasing street mayhem in his and other cities.

Rankin, who grew up in Duncan and owns a metal-crafting business called Wroughtenart that makes railings, gates and art pieces, said businesses have struggled or closed as a result of increasing drug use, homelessness and criminal activity in the area.

On Monday afternoon, people with belongings in bags and shopping carts passed by the burnt-out thrift store on which many relied. Just a few blocks north, some were openly using drugs in the parking lots.

“It’s just getting worse and worse,” said Rankin, who founded a group called Canadian Citizens Against Crime and Public Drug Abuse.

Rankin said he is working within the Save Our Streets coalition, which includes about 75 businesses and citizen organizations — including representatives from Victoria, Duncan, Nanaimo, and Campbell River — to tackle “epidemic” levels of theft, violence and vandalism.

Rankin said the rally is “to end this reign of terror, which is continually growing with no end in sight — despite handing out food, needles and some housing, which some who are severely mentally ill and drug addicted do not want.”

Rankin pointed to an incident Tuesday when Cowichan Secondary School, across from the thrift store, was put into lockdown after a woman, who, police said, had mental health and drug issues, approached the school, saying she had been attacked. The school brought her inside and fed her and as a precaution put the school into lockdown and called police, said Island District RCMP Cpl. Alex Bérubé.

The woman was unco-­oper­ative after being asked to leave, said police, and due to her level of intoxication, she was taken into custody to be released when she was sober.

As for Saturday’s fire, Rankin said a witness reported seeing three individuals using drugs and lighting a fire outside the store. “They actually caught themselves on fire,” he said. “It sounded like they were using some sort of accelerant, like alcohol to light the fire.”

The people were moved along but “then the one girl came back and threw a flaming object through the window,” said Rankin.

North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into the fire, but no specific cause has been determined.

North Cowichan Interim Fire Chief Ron French said about 46 firefighters from four stations responded to a 911 call around 12:40 or 12:50 a.m. Saturday for the blaze, which fully engulfed the two-storey building.

Firefighters couldn’t enter the burning building, which was packed with used goods, and attacked the blaze from outside. The business is a write-off, but firefighters were able to save the buildings on either side.

Vancouver Island District RCMP Forensic Identification Services and North Cowichan’s fire inspector are also investigating. Once the RCMP makes its final determination, the insurance company will conduct its own investigation, French said.

LeVonne Strang, 71, said the owner of the thrift store dropped her off at her small single-storey home behind the store at 12:30 a.m. Saturday after the two were dancing in Crofton.

Strang said immediately afterwards, she was walking her small dog and as she rounded the corner to the parking area in front of the store, she saw a flicker of light on the street. When she went closer, she saw broken glass and smouldering flames.

“It just went poof,” said Strang. “It went up so fast, I was freaked out.”

Strang said she was trying to call the owner — “I was frantic to get a hold of him to get him down there because his store was clearly going down fast” — but got no answer. She called 911, as did someone driving by.

“It went really fast,” said Strang, who worked many years at the thrift store. “It went right through the two floors and right through the roof, straight up.”

Strang knew the owner of the former Moby Meats market — an elderly man and his wife — in the adjacent building would be sleeping above the store, so she raced to tell fire crew. They were rescued uninjured.

She had no idea that a worker from the massage parlor on the other side of the thrift store was also upstairs. “She had headphones on and she fell asleep. She was fine. She got up to go to the bathroom at one point and heard some noises and was curious.”

Strang said the thrift store owner told her he had earlier chased away people loitering outside the building.

Rankin said he heard the same thing.

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said losing a business to a fire “is devastating to any business owner under any circumstance,” but added: “I would not want to draw any conclusions until the RCMP have completed their investigation.”

North Cowichan Mayor Rob Douglas said he’s waiting for information from the RCMP and the municipality’s fire inspector. He said he understands the frustration of residents in the area. Since he was elected in the fall of 2022, issues related to street disorder, homelessness and drug use have been at the top of his agenda, he said.

“Every day I’m hearing from parents and business owners and residents and service providers who are growing increasingly frustrated with the challenges we’re facing.”

Douglas said he’s learned from the RCMP that a small number of individuals are responsible for an outsized portion of the criminal activity in the municipality. He said he’s looking forward to changes by the federal government to address the problem of repeat offenders being released from custody.

Local governments are limited in terms of tools and resources to respond to the challenges, he said, beyond increasing bylaw enforcement and street cleanups.

“Cowichan Valley is definitely seeing a big spike in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness and the amount of street disorder as well, which is putting more and more pressure on municipalities like ours — they’re just not not equipped to deal with it.”

When it comes to drug use, Douglas called for the province to put more emphasis on prevention, treatment and recovery.

The province has made a “good start” on providing public treatment and recovery beds, but Douglas said he wants to see them build on that “so when people are ready to step into that, that they’re not placed on a waiting list.”

Rankin says the province needs to end the “failed decriminalization experiment” — a three-year pilot in which people who use illicit drugs can carry a small amount for personal consumption — and scale back the prescribed safer-supply program so the drugs don’t end up being sold on the streets.

There need to be more prevention measures, treatment facilities and secure mental-health facilities where people “cannot do harm to themselves and law-abiding citizens,” said Rankin.

Strang, whose tiny home is shadowed by businesses fronting York Street and condos on Dingwall Street, said she sees people struggling around her home all hours of the day and night.

Strang said her community is suffering under the weight of growing homelessness, crimes by repeat offenders, and increasing public drug use.

“Business owners need protection — they can’t have their businesses burning down,” said Strang. “But I’m more concerned about helping those people that want help.

“Sometimes they aren’t treated nice by the police. They just get settled down and have to move and it happens all night long. The system is all wrong.”

Whether it’s drug abuse or street crime, she said, more needs to be done to help people “to deal with what causes them to do these things.”

[email protected]

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: [email protected]