Calgary shed fire hits close to home for detox worker whose relative was among victims

As a worker at a shelter and detox facility in Calgary, Robbie Daniels admits he sometimes feels a sense of personal failure when people he knows through his job die on the street.

Daniels felt it again when his brother-in-law, Trent Hunter, was one of three people who died when a shed caught fire outside a home improvement store in the city early on Dec. 11.

A fire department spokesperson said at the time it was believed the three were using the shed as a shelter when the overnight temperature dropped to -8 C.

“I feel a sense of failure and a sense of remorse for somebody, because I’ve tried and I’m not trying hard enough, you know? If I had more support I could probably be more able to help. I don’t know,” Daniels said in an interview.

After the blaze there was nothing left of the shed, one of about a dozen on display in the parking lot outside a Lowe’s in the city’s northwest.

Police said in a statement that video surveillance footage was reviewed and investigators determined that the fire was not suspicious.

Hunter was youngest of four children

Hunter, who was 35, was from Morley, on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, west of Calgary and was the youngest of four children.

“He comes from a good family, a good, loving mother,” Daniels said. “She’s going through a really hard time right now. She really loved her kids so much, all of them.”

Daniels himself is no stranger to addictions and homelessness. He slept in a tent and in parks before finally seeking help, getting clean and founding Sobercrew Calgary, which helps support people recovering from addictions and trauma.

Like many who are homeless and addicted, Daniels says he was paranoid and afraid of crowds in homeless shelters.

Sometimes Hunter’s mother would ask Daniels to look for her son. The last time he saw him was a couple of weeks ago when Hunter tried to access the facility where Daniels works, but the facility was full.

A closeup of a man wearing a baseball cap.
Trent Hunter, whom brother-in-law Robbie Daniels says was one of three victims who died in a shed fire on Dec. 11, is seen in an undated handout photo. (Handout-Robbie Daniels/The Canadian Press)

Daniels says Hunter was addicted to crystal meth and opiates and had been homeless for about two years. He says Hunter talked about wanting to get clean and take care of his wife and young son.

“It’s long and it’s extremely hard for an addict to have patience because they don’t have patience at all,” Daniels said, explaining that addicts become frustrated or get scared at the steps they need to take to access treatment, such as obtaining identification.

“An addicted mind is not the same as ours. They have a hard time handling situations.”

In the time they’re waiting, they often fall back into old habits. But Daniels wanted badly to help Hunter, because he says Hunter’s family was there for Daniels during the years when he was struggling.

“I’d tell him, I know it’s terrifying. Because he expressed a few times that he was scared to sober up. But I told him, I’m here, I work here. I’ll help you. I’ll bring you smokes, clothes, whatever you need, I’ll be there with you. Just go get some help,” Daniels said.

In Edmonton this year, there were two fire-related deaths at homeless encampments, and four in 2022. The fire department in Saskatoon recorded more than 30 fires in tents or homeless encampments this year, a jump from 12 fires in 2022 and three in 2021.

Halifax’s fire department has responded to more than seven fires involving unhoused people since September, including two recent tent fires; occupants of both escaped without injury.

It was hard, but not entirely shocking, when a relative phoned Daniels last week to tell him Hunter was dead.

“I’d seen the kind of lifestyle he was living,” said Daniels.

“It helps me to try hard in everything I do. I’ve dedicated my life to help people on the street, even when I’m not working. It’s 24-7 for me.”