Manitoba

Hundreds of vacant buildings scattered across Winnipeg pose fire risk, says fire chief

The city announced this week it plans to demolish a vacant Maryland Street apartment block that caught fire three times in the space of a year. The building is just one example of a larger problem posed by Winnipeg's many empty spaces, says an assistant Winnipeg fire chief.

Maryland building that caught fire 3 times in past year will be demolished, city says

The apartment block will be demolished, the city announced Thursday, one day after a fire left part of it collapsed. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

An unoccupied Maryland Street apartment building that was slated for demolition after catching fire Wednesday night is just one example of a larger problem in the city, says an assistant chief with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, as nearly 600 buildings in Winnipeg are currently sitting vacant.

"Anecdotally, I can say we've had a lot more trouble with fires in vacant buildings," said assistant fire Chief Mark Reshaur.

The Maryland Street building also caught fire twice last January, forcing its roughly 50 residents to flee. On Thursday, the city announced plans to tear down the apartment block, because it has become structurally compromised.

Reshaur said he thinks as it gets colder outside, more people experiencing homelessness are looking for places to keep warm.

"As a result of their activities in trying to keep warm in these buildings, fires are occurring. And that's reflective of a much larger social problem that we're experiencing in the city."

He could not say whether that was a factor in the latest Maryland Street fire.

Fires in vacant buildings can be particularly dangerous, Reshaur said, because they often burn longer before they're discovered.

"So when we arrive on scene, the fire is much more advanced, the building is compromised structurally, and we have to assume a defensive posture when we're fighting the fire, rather than going in and extinguishing it from the interior."

570 empty buildings in city

The Maryland Street building is just one of the city's 570 buildings listed as vacant. Most of the buildings are concentrated in neighbourhoods in the north and west ends, according to numbers from the City of Winnipeg.

The St. John's neighbourhood has the most, with 36 structures listed as vacant. Daniel McIntyre — where the Maryland Street building is located — is a close second, with 27 buildings listed as empty. The St. Matthews area has 22 vacant buildings.

Winston Yee, a manager for the city's community bylaw enforcement services department, said the city has been working to lower those numbers through enforcement of its 2011 vacant building bylaw.

Yee said he could not say whether the Maryland Street apartment is on the list of the city's vacant buildings.

The bylaw allows the city to issue fines to owners for boarded-up buildings and conduct annual inspections, with the option of issuing tickets for violations.

Yee said city council also recently approved a measure to implement an empty building fee for long-term vacant buildings, which charges owners one per cent of the property's most recently assessed value every year.

He said when the vacant building program started, only about 100 to 150 structures were being taken off the vacant building list every year. Now, he said close to 250 buildings are removed from the list annually.

"So it is having the effect of prompting reuse and reoccupancy."

He said the damage from the fires in the Maryland Avenue block last year was not serious enough to make the building dangerous, but that changed with the most recent fire.

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