Numbers from the city show fire crews have been called to 133 fires at vacant buildings so far this year, up from 82 in all of 2020 and 81 for the entirety of 2019.
That means the city’s on track to see an 80 per cent increase in “exceptionally dangerous” fires this year, said Mark Reshaur, assistant chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
“These fires are having a big impact,” Reshaur told Global News.
“Because these buildings are unoccupied and often boarded up, the fires inside them burn for longer, they are deeper-seated in the structure, and they are burning much more intensely throughout the entire building as opposed to confined to a room of origin.
“So when we get to the fire it’s because the fires broken out through a window or through the roof and the community’s seen it, and by then it’s too late.”
Reshaur said the longer a building sits vacant, the more dangerous it is for firefighters. There’s more chance a floor might fall through, and the risk that a roof might collapse increases because flames are able to rip through holes punched into walls where copper pipes and wiring has been stolen, threatening the building’s structural integrity.
And because certain areas of the city have more vacant buildings than others, Reshaur said it’s often the same fire crews getting called to the more dangerous blazes.
According to the city, there are currently 570 buildings listed as vacant in Winnipeg, with the overwhelming majority concentrated in the North End and West End.
The William Whyte neighbourhood alone has 70 structures listed as vacant.
Winston Yee is the manager of community bylaw enforcement services with the City of Winnipeg.
Yee said the number of buildings officially labeled as vacant in Winnipeg is constantly in flux, with city staff removing on average between 200 and 300 from the list every year.
But hundreds more are also added, he said.
According to Yee, the office relies on tips from the public and also works with community organizations, police and the WFPS to help locate vacant buildings.
Once a building is listed as vacant bylaw officers start annual structural and safety inspections and Yee said they work with owners with the goal of getting the spaces re-occupied.
But there are also financial penalties for owners of long-term vacant buildings and buildings found to be out of compliance, Yee said.
Owners are charged just over $1,200 if deficiencies are found during an inspection, on top of the $600 levied for the annual inspections. There’s also a $2,000 fee for a permit to board up a building, which increases every subsequent year it remains empty.
“So if you’ve got a vacant building for five or six years, it could be an annual fee to continue to have that building boarded, well over $10,000,” Yee said, adding officers also have the ability to further fine building owners who are not responsive.
Anecdotally, Yee said most building owners want to work with bylaw officers, and not all vacant properties that end up with fires were previously on the city’s list of vacant buildings.
That’s why both Yee and Reshaur note it’s important for Winnipeggers to report vacant buildings in their neighbourhoods.
“If you see a building that’s insecure, if you see people coming and going, if you see boards removed from the window, if you see illegal dumping, report it right away,” Reshaur said.
Ultimately though, Reshaur said it’s up to vacant building owners to make sure the property is safe.
“They need to be going and taking a look at their vacant properties and making sure the building is secure and they need to be re-securing it,” he said.
“Don’t wait for a phone call from us at two in the morning to say the place is on fire. You need to be getting out there on a proactive basis and checking your properties and making sure they’re secure.”
–With files from Brittany Greenslade