Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firebugs a real threat

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Winnipeg's firefighters have been warning for years that arsons are out of control, but the city's response has not always been equal to the threat.

The problem was first identified in 1999 when a rash of arsons engulfed the north end of the city. That led to the creation of an arson strike force and speedier collection of bulk waste in arson-prone areas, since back-lane garbage fires accounted for a high percentage of the fires.

Official interest in the phenomenon, however, began to wane over time, even as the numbers of deliberately set fires rose. Then, in 2011, the problem spread from the inner city to the suburbs in several high-profile incidents, putting the issue back on the front burner.

Firefighters have been racing to as many as 500 arsons a year for the last 10 years, which their union says probably makes Winnipeg the arson capital of Canada.

The city says it will double its collection of bulk waste in arson-prone districts, while simultaneously developing a long-term strategy similar to the one deployed against young car thieves.

The education system should also be engaged to emphasize the perils of playing with fire and to remind firebugs arson is a serious crime. An anti-arson program developed by firefighters that referred young fire-starters for special classes needs to see its funding restored.

The auto-theft suppression strategy worked by targeting serious and repeat offenders for special treatment by police, the courts and probation services. Car thieves were identified, aggressively prosecuted, incarcerated and closely monitored while on probation.

The same approach should be applied to arsonists, of which there are many. Police arrested or cautioned more than 600 offenders between 2007 and 2012, including 98 repeat offenders and 78 chronic offenders, defined as people who committed multiple offences in one year.

Arson, of course, is different than car theft in several ways, including the fact the car thief is usually caught in the act, while arsonists have usually left the scene of their crime.

The new strategy will require more work by the justice and education systems, but the effort is necessary to protect life and property.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2013 A8

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