The City of Winnipeg is working on new approaches when it comes to dealing with hundreds of vacant and derelict buildings that are not only eye sores, but also safety hazards to communities and emergency crews who face the problem head on.
“The problem has gotten worse,” Staff Sgt. Rob Duttchen told Global News.
Duttchen said the problem has become overwhelming for Winnipeg police, fire crews and city by-law officers who are working together to deal with the 615 properties that fall under the Vacant Buildings Bylaw.
The boarded up properties are also a growing concern for residents, especially those who live beside one.
Tracy Ball lives in Old Kildonan and said she has been calling the city and emergency services for months about an abandoned building next to her house on Matheson St. Last week, it went up in flames.
“I was standing there going, ‘My house of 26 years is going to go up and it was totally preventable,'” she said.
Ball said it was her worst nightmare happening in front of her own eyes and she’s worried it will happen again.
“There’s another house shut down, one more past this one, that is now derelict and boarded up,” Ball said. “We’re afraid that it will go up as well.”
These vacant and derelict buildings are taking over streets and in some neighbourhoods are creating serious issues. They’ve become shelters for the homeless and targets for arsonists.
Inside a breached building during Global News’ ride-along with police, fire and by-law officials, a man high on meth with more drugs in his possession was arrested and found squatting inside a burned-out building.
“As soon as I saw the two doors (no longer boarded), I figured that somebody would be in here,” Duttchen said.
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“In some instances, we find as fast as we can secure the building, people see us leave and they’re back trying to get inside the structure.”
Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said they are seeing one or two fires in vacant structures every week.
In 2021, there were more than 60 fires in derelict buildings, which is a 113 per cent increase from 2017.
“It’s been growing substantially over the last number of years and it’s opportunistic,” Asst. Chief Scott Wilkinson said.
Often, police and fire crews are attending to the same buildings over and over again.
“Police have been here many times over the years,” Wilkinson said while standing in front of one boarded-up building in the North End. “We’ve had two or three fires in this building since the original fire and it just keeps being re-boarded and fires occurring again.”
Many are surrounded by garbage that has been illegally dumped and discarded furniture which also poses as a fire hazard.
“(It) can spread to the building and if it spreads to this building, it can spread to the building next door,” Wilkinson said.
It’s not just a risk to people who live nearby but also to emergency crews who are called to respond when there are issues at the property, whether illicit and criminal activity or a fire.
In the past five years, the city said firefighters have been injured battling blazes in these kinds of properties.
In one case, police said the building in question had recently been burned, with the fire scorching through the floor boards, creating a 30-foot drop to the basement that wouldn’t be visible if there was smoke inside.
In one building on Main and Euclid, a fire started near a set of stairs and now it’s become a place for miscreants. Police are concerned about what could happen if there’s a problem inside the basement.
“How do we get down there safely? How do we get the person out?” Duttchen said. “What does the structural integrity look like if the stairs have been burned out already?”
While police, fire and city bylaw officers are working on a collaborative approach to listing properties and coming up with better solutions, for those who live nearby one of those buildings, it can’t happen soon enough.