City fire numbers jump amid drought, societal factors

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The number of fires in Winnipeg requiring first responders action has increased year-over-year since 2019 — with many residential blazes considered suspicious.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/03/2022 (268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The number of fires in Winnipeg requiring first responders action has increased year-over-year since 2019 — with many residential blazes considered suspicious.

From 2019 and 2021, the number of fires the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service responded to increased by 58 per cent, according to City of Winnipeg data obtained by the Free Press.

In 2019, a total of 1,804 such fires were logged; in 2021, that number had jumped to 2,857.

Over the course of 2019-2021, there were a total of 2,221 structure fires, the majority of which were in one-or-two family residences. In the same period, there were 4,465 non-structure fires. (That category includes brush, garbage bins, vehicles and miscellaneous outdoor property.)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (Pictured) Firefighters were called to a fire at 177 Selkirk Ave. in January. High numbers of fires impacts the service’s overall ability, said WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt.

In 2019, there were 746 structure fires, compared to 696 in 2020, and 779 in 2021.

In 2019, there were 1,058 non-structure fires, compared with 1,329 in 2020, and 2,078 in 2021.

May is typically the month with the most fires, the data show (although July 2021 edged it out 309-307).

“It has been a busy 12 months here, in particular over last summer with the drought conditions. So in part, not too surprising to see some of these numbers, given the fact some of our front-line crews have been responding to these on a daily basis,” WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt told the Free Press.

High numbers of fires impacts the service’s overall ability, he said.

“When vehicles are engaged in firefighting duties, they’re not available… for other fire calls or medical calls for that matter,” Schmidt said.

“The other thing to keep in mind here, in particular over the past few weeks, we’ve seen some major fires here in Winnipeg. We’ve had to rotate through many crews — in some cases, every crew or near every crew that’s been on duty for the shift.”

That’s largely due to extreme cold impacting firefighters; while the inverse is a concern in the summer heat.

The department’s analysis notes a number of potential reasons for the increase in recent fires: overall population growth, old housing stock, vacant buildings being sought for shelter, and the increase in the number of vulnerable people living in encampments or outdoors.

The analysis also notes socioeconomic factors, such as poverty and addictions, lead to increased fire risk.

However, when isolating residential fires — including rooming houses, single-family homes and apartments — the No. 1 cause was “incendiary,” indicating the fire was set intentionally or was “suspicious,” according to the department’s analysis.

Those fires are first investigated by WFPS, then passed to the Winnipeg Police Service if determined to be arson. (Careless smoking and cooking, electrical failures, or appliance and mechanical issues are among other main causes.)

The data didn’t surprise long-time community activist Sel Burrows.

He recently launched a local fire safety campaign, after a number of inner-city blazes in January. A house fire on Simcoe Street on Jan. 27 hospitalized nine people, including five children. A five-year-old boy later died in hospital.

Burrows said he was moved to action for three main reasons.

“No. 1: people die. Nothing’s more important than people’s lives and people die in fires… No. 2: it dislocates people, a huge number of these fires are in the inner city, they’re poor people who don’t have any insurance, so they lose everything,” he said.

The third is something he thinks is often ignored: loss of housing stock. Burrows noted there are 560 buildings officially boarded up in the city, many of which are multi-family homes.

“If the city took the position that these houses, if they’re kept boarded up or vacant, that the cost to the owner was such that it would put pressure… to either bring them back into the market or sell them to someone who would, we could have 500 more low-cost housing units in Winnipeg at no cost to government,” Burrows said.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (Pictured) Winnipeg firefighters were called to an apartment block under construction on Kimberley to fight a fire in January.

Of the major causes of local fires the last three years, Burrows said: “You’ve got arson, which is crime. Then you’ve got two that are government-regulation oriented: one is house wiring and the other is… it’s really about heaters falling over and stuff like that but they call it appliances.

“Those three categories all need action, now that we know what they are. I’m going to be kicking butt.”

Schmidt noted work with community groups is important in reducing fire risk, pointing to back lane patrols reporting hazardous debris.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (Pictured) When isolating residential fires — including rooming houses, single-family homes and apartments — the No. 1 cause was “incendiary,” indicating the fire was set intentionally or was “suspicious,” according to the department’s analysis.

“This obviously not only has an impact on our service, it’s got a greater impact on the community, in particular the neighbourhoods that see higher fire activity,” the WFPS chief said.

The service is planning to ramp up work with community partners in the coming months to reduce fire risk, Schmidt said. Details will be announced soon, he added.

erik.pindera@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @erik_pindera

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (Pictured) Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service crews battle a garage fire that jumped to a house on Burrows Avenue last year. The service is planning to ramp up work with community partners in the coming months to reduce fire risk, WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt said.
Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera
Reporter

Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.

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